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World’s last ‘dinosaur trees’ rescued from wrath of Australian fires

Prehistoric pines survive Australia bushfires
WATCH: Prehistoric pines survive Australia bushfires

In the midst of Australia’s wildfire crisis, a team of firefighters was dropped into the rainforest with a special mission: protect a piece of history.

The world’s last remaining cluster of Wollemi pines — known as “dinosaur trees” — was at risk of being razed by the fires as they snaked west of Sydney.

That’s when the government stepped in.

A special fleet of firefighters was winched from helicopters to reach the wild stand of about 200 trees, located in a remote gorge in the Blue Mountains. There, they set up an irrigation system to pump water from the gorge and keep the trees and their environment damp.

New South Wales National Parks and Wildlife Service personnel use fire hoses to dampen the forest floor near Wollemi pine trees in the Wollemi National Park, New South Wales, Australia.
New South Wales National Parks and Wildlife Service personnel use fire hoses to dampen the forest floor near Wollemi pine trees in the Wollemi National Park, New South Wales, Australia. (NSW National Parks and Wildfire Service via AP)

Air tankers bombed the surrounding area with fire retardant and helicopters water-bucketed the fire’s edge.

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“With less than 200 left, we knew we needed to do everything we could to save them,” Australia’s environment minister, Matt Kean, said in a statement.

“These pines outlived the dinosaurs.”

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The Wollemi pine was once believed to be extinct before the cluster was found in 1994. Before then, the trees were believed to only live in fossil form.

Firefighters provide water to baby and mother Koala on Kangaroo Island
Firefighters provide water to baby and mother Koala on Kangaroo Island

Their exact location is a well-kept secret to keep them protected.

While the mission was successful, Kean said some plants had been charred by the fires.

New South Wales National Parks and Wildlife Service personnel inspect the health of Wollemi pine trees in the Wollemi National Park, New South Wales, Australia.
New South Wales National Parks and Wildlife Service personnel inspect the health of Wollemi pine trees in the Wollemi National Park, New South Wales, Australia. (NSW National Parks and Wildfire Service via AP)

While those fires have since been brought under control, they destroyed approximately 90 per cent of Wollemi National Park, where the rare species grows, before being suppressed.

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Bushfires have gripped much of Australia since September, claiming at least 28 lives, killing countless animals and destroying more than 3,000 homes.

The land scorched so far — more than 10.3 million hectares — is larger than the size of Nova Scotia.

Relief has found its way to some parts of the country in recent days. Rain in several critical areas has diminished the fire danger and improved air quality in some places, including smoke-stricken Melbourne, but the fight is far from over.

Much-needed rain falls in New South Wales’ bushfire-ravaged communities
Much-needed rain falls in New South Wales’ bushfire-ravaged communities

Kean said the “full impact” of the fire on the trees may not be known for some time. He said the rescue mission will hopefully add to the environment ministry’s efforts to protect the trees in the future.

“The 2019 wildfire is the first-ever opportunity to see the fire response of mature Wollemi pine in a natural setting, which will help us refine the way we manage fire in these sites long-term,” he said.

— With files from the Associated Press