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Life will return to Namadgi National Park in the aftermath of the Orroral Valley bushfire – ABC News

Life will return to Namadgi National Park in the aftermath of the Orroral Valley bushfire
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While Canberra's 2003 bushfires impacted local suburbs and claimed lives, the fires this year in Namadgi National Park burned with an intensity veteran firefighters "had never seen" before.
The Orroral Valley bushfire, which spanned over 80,000 hectares and saw the ACT enter a state of emergency, has become the territory's worst ever environmental disaster, destroying 80 per cent of Namadgi.
Brett McNamara has spent three decades as a manager with ACT Parks, and the Namadgi National Park has been not just his workplace, but his passion, and his source of spiritual replenishment.
For the veteran parks ranger to have to watch it burn — for the second time in his career — was soul-crushing.
"While Canberra has been saved — we haven't had the dramatic loss of houses or property or life — what we have lost to some extent is the ecological integrity of an area that all of us love," Mr McNamara said as he stood on black earth, streaked with sooty mud.
"It has been confronting."
This is a man who has seen the extremes of Namadgi National Park.
In winter, he'll spend too many afternoons towing tourists' cars bogged on snowy roads. But a fortnight ago, he was sheltering in Gudgenby homestead as fire threatened to take the building — and the lives of his parks firefighting crew.
Namadgi can be a brutal, unforgiving place.
The bulk of Namadgi is still off limits to the public. It's dangerous, it's ugly, and, quite frankly, it's a distressing sight for those who love it.
Behind the roadblocks can only be described as "ground zero" — the place where fire raced out of the Orroral Valley and consumed virtually all before it.
At Glendale, close to an ACT Parks depot, everything is black. The rocks, the trees, and the soil.
The creeks run black with ash after recent rains. The river banks are sticky with soot. And each footstep on the forest floor sinks deeper than you feel it should.
Everything seems dead. Trees resemble blackened matchsticks, with branches and dead leaves frozen in the direction of the firestorm.
As he made his way through the park, with equal parts wonder and frustration, Mr McNamara peeled a large slab of rock off a granite boulder. It made a sharp crack as it came away and hit the ground below.
This onion-peeling effect, he explained, was brought on by the extreme contrasts of winter cold, and the intense heat of bushfires.
"I've never seen a fire burn with such intensity and ferocity that we've seen through here," Mr McNamara said.
"While fire is a natural part of the landscape, what we're seeing here today is really quite remarkable in terms of the heat that came through here.
"This is a landscape-building event. This is what creates the alluvial soils that we have on the plains."
Many Canberrans may think the territory got off lightly this fire season, especially in comparison to 2003's fires, which killed four people and destroyed hundreds of homes.
But there were many anxious days for Tharwa residents, and for those in Canberra's southernmost suburbs of Gordon, Banks and Conder, who watched as the fire swept over Mt Tennent and menaced their homes.
Though any remaining talk of a lucky escape evaporates as you drive deeper into the scorched Namadgi landscape.
Environment Minister Mick Gentleman called the Orroral Valley fire an "ecological disaster", and surrounded by the stench of burnt bush, it's hard to disagree.
Firefighters went to considerable effort and expense to save Indigenous relics, including ripping up timber boardwalks around the Yankee Hat rock art site to prevent it burning the irreplaceable paintings.
They steered the fire around sites of European historical significance, like Pryor's Hut, Frank and Jack's Hut, Gudgenby Homestead, and Ready-cut Cottage.
And they even commandeered an ADF Taipan helicopter, with a reported running cost of $70,000 an hour, to a secret location near Corin Dam to retrieve a sacred Indigenous women's object.
Parks manager Justin Foley is sanguine about whether it was one of these same choppers that accidentally ignited the Orroral Valley fire.
"No, it doesn't stick in our gut because we knew that every time we had people in the park, there was an ignition risk," Mr Foley said.
"It really doesn't pay to focus on that ignition point — it's more important to understand the state of the park, to learn from the way the fire behaved, and to set a recovery pathway."
Mr Foley said his team were planning for fire this summer, wherever it came from. And — on paper at least — lightning strikes were a much more likely cause of fire than a helicopter landing light.
For now, the ACT Government's environment directorate is focussed firmly on giving nature the helping hand it needs to recover.
On the ABC's trip to the worst-hit parts of the park, directorate head Ian Walker sounded almost upbeat about the future of blackened landscape that surrounded him.
"That's the wonderful thing about nature — it does respond very well," Mr Walker said.
"It certainly looks like a dead landscape [but] there are still animals in the landscape, kangaroos, echidnas, they're still persisting, and that gives me immense hope."
Mr Walker said after recent rain, the landscape would begin to rapidly transform. Within weeks or months there will be regrowth sprouting from eucalypts, and grasses will again begin to cover the forest floor.
The big unknown though, is how often Namadgi can sustain such high intensity burns.
"The concern we have is about the frequency and the intensity of these sorts of events," Mr McNamara said.
"We're really in uncharted territory in terms of what this landscape will look like in years to come."
Mr Walker agrees, and links climate change into the discussion.
"As we have climate change, and the recognition that climate change will create more fires, more storm events, we need to think about different ways in which we will adapt and help assist nature to adapt," he said.
The casual observer may see Namadgi now as a blackened wasteland. But there are — as Mr McNamara puts it — "beacons of hope" scattered through the park that Canberrans will gravitate to.
Everyone seems confident the park will grow up around those huts, cultural and Indigenous sites once more.
"The park is resilient, the mountains are resilient, and we are resilient," Mr McNamara said.
"We'll get there. We'll be fine."
But we will need to be patient.
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