The Blue Mountains chief of the NSW National Parks and Wildlife Service has told the Royal Commission into Natural Disaster Arrangements this week of the dramatic battle to save the critically endangered Jurassic era Wollemi Pine during the recent summer bushfires.
David Crust, who is the park operations director for the Blue Mountains NSW National Parks and Wildlife Service, told the Royal Commission how a special operation was put in place to save the less than 100 mature plants surviving in the wild, whose remote, rugged, location still remains a secret.
During day three of proceedings he said "fire had always been considered one of the most significant threats to the survival of the wild populations [and] we were aware quite early in the season the conditions were extraordinarily dry, and that we were quite clearly facing a serious fire season".
Mr Crust said despite competing demands for firefighting resources they managed to save the ancient stand of pine - bringing about plans that were set in train soon after the pine's rediscovery in 1994.
Every day during the fires while visibility and conditions allowed, Parks winched a team of remote aera firefighters into the pines site to operate the irrigation equipment.
"Water availability was really limited," he said.
"We could run the pumps for about two, two-and-a-half hours before the water sources were depleted. So the crews went in each day and went through that operation, and then were winched out by helicopter."
The team involved staff from their science division (who were also members of the recovery team and had been involved in research and management operations at the Wollemi Pine site) and experienced local staff - a mix of people from across the Department of Planning, Industry, and Environment.
Mr Crust has been managing the pines since 1997 and said it was the first time they had had to enact a "recovery plan". The pines are located in an extremely remote and rugged area of the park, and the only reasonable access is via helicopter.
"It was a species that was known from fossil records, known from the Jurassic period and thought to be well and truly extinct," Mr Crust told the Commission.
"Its rediscovery in 1994 was an incredibly significant botanical find that has drawn worldwide attention and I guess it's given it an iconic - iconic status in the eyes of the community."
Mr Crust said to protect the site previous recovery plans had strategies to install irrigation systems on the site but "what was different this time [was] there was no running water on the site, basically just a couple of small pools of water that were available for pumping to an irrigation system".
"I think the other constraint we had to consider was that there were 40 extensive areas of fire across the state."
The irrigation system was set up so the majority of the mature trees at the main Wollemi Pines site could be watered, so that the impact on the trees would be minimised, he said.
Mr Crust said three Black Hawk helicopters spent several days above the Wollemi Pine sites strategically water bucketing fires as they approached the cliff edges to reduce the chance of fire dropping into the gorge.
The chopper crews also flew in equipment, the firefighters and provided information on the fire progression. Very large aerial tankers were also used to drop retardant as the fire approached the Wollemi Pines.
Mr Crust said while some of the lower canopies were impacted "the actual canopy of the populations is intact and that's the most significant contribution towards the survival of the plants. If the canopy had burnt, the results would have been catastrophic".
Across the Greater Blue Mountains World Heritage area there were about 50 ignitions during the fire season and 20 of those were contained to an average of less than 1.2 hectares. He said "conditions were exceptionally dry and it was exceptionally hard to get fires out, and resource availability was constrained, particularly the availability of helicopters".
North American firefighters assisted with the management of fires in the Wollemi National Park and one man in particular who managed air operations had "a baptism of fire ... a crash course in Australian fire suppression operations, and in fire behaviour in Australian vegetation communities," he said.
National Parks is in the process of drafting a new recovery plan for the pines that should be available later this year and is also reviewing all fire management strategies for all fire impacted areas. Mr Crust said in the next five to six years they would look at prescribed burns around the Wollemi Pine population.