“Wollemi National Park is the only place in the world where these trees are found in the wild and, with less than 200 left, we knew we needed to do everything we could to save them,” Mr Kean said.
The National Parks and Wildlife Service, backed by the Rural Fire Service, kept their efforts largely a secret to avoid revealing the location of the Wollemi pines.
Contamination from pathogens brought in by visitors could devastate the remaining populations.
“When the pines were discovered in 1994, you might as well have found a living dinosaur,” Mr Kean said.
Cris Brack, an associate professor at the Australian National University said fossil evidence indicates that the trees existed between 200 and 100 million years ago and were once present across the whole of Australia.
“I knew the [grove] was exceedingly threatened by the fires,” he said.
Ageing the current crop is difficult because they may be cloned from only a few trees or even a single individual. As such, the plants could be as old as 100,000 years, Professor Brack said.
Video footage captured by cameras shows fires approaching the pines, with some becoming charred.
As the fires neared, a NPWS crew was again dropped into the area to operate the irrigation system, with helicopters also called in to drop water on the fire edge to reduce any impact on the pines.
Mr Kean said the threat peaked towards the end of last year, including a period of about four days when it was unclear if the pines had been spared.
“We just waited with bated breath,” Mr Kean said, adding visibility remained very poor for days afterwards before experts could tell the outcome. While one population of a couple of trees was lost, the remaining 200 made it.
Richard Kingsford, director of the Centre for Ecosystem Science at the University of NSW, said the preservation of the original stands of the pines was “fundamentally important”.
“This is such a remarkable species in terms of ecology and evolution … and only found in Australia,” Professor Kingsford said.
“It’s something like the Opera House of the natural world,” he added. “Losing it would have added to the catastrophe we have seen elsewhere.”
Professor Brack said evidence from researchers who have visited the trees’ secret location suggests the pines were able to withstand fires in the past. That said, “these fires have been abnormally hot and large”, he added.
Saving the area was not only important for preserving the pines, which have now been propagated by nurseries at home and abroad since their discovery a quarter of a century ago.
“The entire ecosystem may be as old and as amazing as the Wollemi pines themselves,” Professor Brack said.
The Gospers Mountain fire alone burnt through more than 512,000 hectares before crews contained the blaze in recent days.
Started by lightning on October 26, the fire may be assessed as the largest ever fire known to have started from a single source, the Herald reported last month.
All up, fires in NSW have scorched about 5.2 million hectares, with estimates of national wildlife losses from this season’s bushfires topping one billion animals nationally.
Peter Hannam writes on environment issues for The Sydney Morning Herald and The Age.