Special Australian firefighters, dispatched by helicopter in a secret operation to a remote gorge northwest of Sydney, have saved the last remaining wild stand of prehistoric trees that were threatened by the country’s raging wildfires, official said.
At risk were Wollemi Pines, numbering less than 100, growing in the wild in the Blue Mountains of Wollemi National Park, 80 miles northwest of Sydney.
The species, dubbed “dinosaur trees,” dates back more than 200 million years, according to Australia’s Department of Environment and Conservation.
The Wollemi Pine had only been seen in its fossilized form and was thought long extinct before the stand was found in 1994.
Firefighters were dropped from helicopters into the gorge about a week before fires that have swept much of Australia bore down on the area, said National Parks and Wildlife Service Director David Crust.
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The operation was kept secret in order to avoid revealing the exact location of the highly endangered trees.
“It was like a military-style operation,” NSW Environment and Energy Minister Matt Kean told the Sydney Morning Herald. “We just had to do everything.”
The operation involved setting up an irrigation system to keep the trees moist and pumping water daily from the gorge as the fires, which have burned out of control for more than two months, got closer.
At the same time, firefighters bombed the most threatening sections of the fire front with fire retardant.
“That helped just to slow the intensity of the fire as it approached the site,” Crust told Australian Broadcasting Corp.
“The Wollemi Pine is a particularly important species and the fact that this is the only place in the world where they exist and they exist in such small numbers is really significant,” he added.
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Kean said that the fire did move through the area, but the operation had protected the stand from destruction, although some plants were singed. He said two plants were lost to the blaze.
“These pines outlived the dinosaurs, so when we saw the fire approaching we realized we had to do everything we could to save them,” Kean said.
The fire that threatened the trees began in October but was brought under control this week after razing more than 2,000 square miles. The blaze has destroyed 90% of the 20-square-mile Wollemi National Park, Crust said.
At least 28 people have died since September from a series of devastating fires that have destroyed more than 2,600 homes and razed more than 40,000 square miles, mostly in New South Wales state. The area burned is larger than the U.S. state of Indiana.
Contributing: Associated Press