The North Stradbroke Island Fires January 2014 – Environmental Forum with Dr Jan Aldenhoven


Typical Heathland pre January 2014 fires on North Stradbroke Island  Photo: Glen Caruthers


Typical Heathland immediately after January 2014 fires on North Stradbroke Island

Photo Jan Aldenhoven


These before and after shots of heathland on Straddie pretty much sum up the dramatic changes brought on by the fires in January 2014.

On the last day of Lines 2014 Dr Jan Aldenhoven, biologist, island resident (who has worked with the natural habitat on Straddie for many years) and internationally renowned wildlife filmmaker spoke before an audience of about thirty or forty people to update everyone on details of what had happened during the fires and how the island and its nonhuman inhabitants were faring.



Murray Fredericks, N Stradbroke Island 2014, digital pigment print, edition of 7, 100-284cm, Courtesy ArcOne Gallery, Melbourne

I found this photograph above from the Melbourne Art Fair’s website on Ocula. You can have a better look at

Jan also works with students at Dunwich State School, visiting yearly to bring environmental projects into the school. In 2014 she worked with the kids about the fires. The posters that follow are from that project:




What follows below are my notes from Jan’s talk:

Jan reported that once the immediate threat to the townships passed, more attention turned to what could be done for wildlife. Darren Burns, Joint Management Coordinator Quandamooka Yoolooburrabee Aboriginal Corporation, was concerned about how much koala habitat had been burnt, and identified one of the last areas in the south under threat. Dr Romane Cristescu (koala researcher on the island) got together all her koala tracking data locating where the animals were to be found in largest numbers. This helped support the case to save the area in the south of the island.



There were two helicopters dumping water on the fires, but helicopters can’t put out fires — you still need a ground crew.

Pretty quickly after the fire, teams went out in search for wildlife. There wasn’t much to find. The reality is that most animals and insects were incinerated.

Control Centre was at the Dunwich Resilience Centre. It seemed like a war room.

There were helicopters crisscrossing the island mapping exactly where the fire was heading and sending that intelligence back to the Control Centre. All the agencies involved were all working together. The idea that any one agency would hold sway over the decision-making process was not going to happen because ultimately Incident Control makes the decisions —  everyone is accountable.

The debriefs afterwards were excellent.

Humans first, property second, environment third – this is the hierarchy for what to save.  Sometimes environment and cultural sites are deemed more valuable than certain property.

You can learn something from the land after it’s been burned – the rhythm of the country speaking. Fire is a part of the bush and certainly Aboriginal burning has been a very significant part of Australian diversity for thousands of years. On Straddie, Aboriginal occupation began twenty thousand years ago.

In a scene like this there are two kinds of trunks. Scribbly gums reflect the heat and don’t burn. The other trees have a fibrous bark which chars on the outside only to a few millimetres and the heartwood is safe.

When a fire has gone through, the tree sends hormonal messages through its sap — so the tree can send out buds to regenerate and get energy again. Then the trees can reform a canopy.

Other plants have underground tubers. They don’t have to wait for seeds to germinate: they can get going right away.

Lillipilli are regenerating from underground. In other places, away from the island, they rely more on regeneration from seed. So it seems like plants can develop local adaptations to deal with different situations.

Grass trees get going really quickly. They must be making a very good contribution to holding down the sandy soil.

A lot of eucalypts — the trunks are too thin and they burn but they’ve got underground storage units and they sprout from that. There’s almost more tree underground than above. You only get that mallee form when it’s on a windsheared harsh area – this is where this happens.

Banksia cone – it has very hard capsules – this plant almost encourages fire.  The heat from the fire causes the seeds to open and drop the seeds. We have lots of small banksia sprouting all around the island.

Big tree ferns have not regenerated.

The ferns were totally crisp and they are coming back – Darren knew they would.

At the moment there is a lot of work going on between agencies to develop good protocols for fire management and work with the Aboriginal community to gain knowledge.


On Straddie we have a type of Rainforest that is quite rare. It has to occur within 2 kilometres of the sea to meet a particular classification. Ours is one of the last stands of it in South Queensland. I’m itching to get back there and have a look. It’s not somewhere the public can just go to and you have to go on foot. Maybe there are trees that regenerate in some other way like we’ve learned about the lillipilli. Generally rainforests don’t like fire, but its hard to believe this stand hasn’t experienced fire before.

Even though the fires were extremely bad, we’d had two years of good rain leading up to them. So the peat in the swamps didn’t burn. If the peat is dry it can burn for months which is bad for the swamp. Swamps can have peat many metres thick.


Fire opens up possibilities for plants and they take advantage of it. Also a succession of birds take advantage of new situations.

Ferns were completely gone and yet they came up almost immediately.

The frogs were taking on darker colours – to meld into fire colours.

Broken-off tree trunks and branches became homes for other animals.

There are really good signs that we have orchids coming up.

After the fires in Amity a couple of years ago we observed some of the best flowering I’ve ever seen.

As for koalas – we still don’t know how many we have on the island. There were many that were burned and the swamps that they lived in. Koalas haven’t come back to all the places they once were.




2 thoughts on “The North Stradbroke Island Fires January 2014 – Environmental Forum with Dr Jan Aldenhoven

  1. polycentrica Post author

    Thanks, Jo. I couldn’t agree more! I was so happy to listen to Jan’s presentation and the photographs were incredible. There’s nothing like getting the lowdown on something from someone like Jan who is so articulate and knows and cares so much. I am incredibly curious to know about the fires. How they cause change and destruction and how everything responds — I’m sure Jan has lots more to share — would love to hear more sometime. Carol


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