AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:
To Australia now where, for the first time since July, there are no active fires burning in New South Wales. That welcome announcement followed an unprecedented summer where more than a fifth of the country's main forests burned. NPR's Nathan Rott looks at how the country's land and people are slowly starting to recover.
(SOUNDBITE OF BEEPING)
COLIN BROWN: Hoskinstown 1 on yellow.
NATHAN ROTT, BYLINE: Leaning across a grit-covered cab of Hoskinstown's largest fire tanker, Colin Brown calls in to service with a local dispatch center. This time, thankfully, it's not to chase smoke.
BROWN: We're assisting the fire analysis people up on the North Black Range.
ROTT: Brown is a deputy captain with the Rural Fire Service in New South Wales. And those fire analysis people he mentioned are a team of ecologists from the Australian National University, based about an hour's drive east in the nation's capital, who are here to survey the ecological damage of a recent fire.
BROWN: Let's go find out what burnt, eh?
ROTT: Brown and the other volunteers in this convoy already have a pretty good idea of what burnt. They, like thousands of other firefighters this summer, spent months chasing flames across eastern Australia's eucalypt-covered hills and doing what they could to protect the ranches and huts tucked between.
BROWN: So pretty much, you're getting into the fire here now. Right?
ROTT: On either side of the dirt road, tall trees are charred a couple of meters up their trunks, like someone reached down and grabbed them by their bushy tops and then dipped their bottoms in tar. Further in, those scorch marks get higher and then higher still until even some of the tops are black and bare. It's in a section like that that the convoy stops.
BROWN: You got a helmet?
ROTT: Yeah, I do.
BROWN: (Unintelligible) Put your helmet on.
ROTT: A caution against falling trees. The air outside smells like damp campfire. It's been raining here, as it has across much of eastern Australia for days. Some folks gather for a snack while others explore the area, climbing over downed logs and across dead leaves. Michael Doherty is stopped at the base of a charred tree. His fingers are running through a cluster of yellow-green leaves that are bursting out of its blackened trunk.
MICHAEL DOHERTY: So this is a young brown barrel tree eucalypt. And it's showing a flash of epicormic growth after the fires.
ROTT: Doherty is a plant ecologist who focuses on forests' ability to recover after bushfires. And he's got a lot of words like epicormic. He could give you the Latin name for the brown barrel and just about every other plant in this forest. But it's what that epicormic growth - that cluster of leaves he's touching - signifies that's important.
DOHERTY: The fact is the trees aren't actually dead. You only get a very small proportion that are killed by the fires. Regrowth is already starting to happen.
ROTT: All around this fire-blasted landscape, red and green leaves are sprouting - out of trunks, ferns, charred patches of ground. Some trees even look like they're covered in leafy green hair.
MARTA YEBRA: Yeah, I was not expecting so much regrowth.
ROTT: Marta Yebra is another ecologist from ANU.
YEBRA: Things are going back to normal - if normal exists (laughter).
ROTT: If normal exists - this is the question hanging over much of eastern Australia. This particular fire, like most this summer, was not unique in its intensity. Severe fires happen, especially in Australia. What was unique this summer was the range of the fires - burning from the far north of the country all the way to the south - and the duration. Here's firefighter Danny King.
DANNY KING: Normally, a fire has one or two days where you'll have a major run, and then it's all about containment of that. And then you're blacking out and mopping up. This came week after week.
ROTT: Scientists have long warned that a warming climate will mean more fires more frequently. And it's this change in the fire regime that's concerning to ecologists like Yebra and Doherty because...
DOHERTY: You got less time for species to recover between fires.
ROTT: And some species require a little more time to recover than others.
KARA YOUNGENTOB: So yeah, these are - I'll just introduce you to the koalas. We have Ash and Talia and Malu (ph).
ROTT: Back at the campus of a ANU in Canberra, Australia's capital, biologist Kara Youngentob is helping run what's essentially a koala orphanage.
YOUNGENTOB: And then we have Belle, who's our most vocal koala.
ROTT: A title she owns up to a bit later while Youngentob's colleagues supply her with a fresh set of leafy eucalyptus branches.
(SOUNDBITE OF KOALA GRUNTING)
UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: How are you, Belle? Beautiful...
YOUNGENTOB: Some of these koalas were saved at the front of the fire. Like, rescuers were literally going in and taking them before the flames got there.
ROTT: Others were brought in after the fires had passed, some with burns.
YOUNGENTOB: And there's no food left. Like, there's no leaves on those trees that have been burnt really badly, so the koalas there are clearly starving.
ROTT: New sprouting, the epicormic growth we saw earlier, is not enough - not in the short term. Koalas need forests to fully recover. They're one of 113 species that the Australian government has identified as now being in urgent need of help. And, Youngentob says, people need help, too.
YOUNGENTOB: It's really emotional for people. We also have a connection to our landscapes. And when you see what's happened here on the scale that it's happened - that it's threatening human health; it's not just koalas, it's everyone - then it's alarming. You know?
ROTT: The emotional scars of this summer's events are still raw in many parts of eastern Australia. Signs thanking firefighters are still up in shops. Newspapers run ads from state governments directing people where to get assistance. A survey by the Australian Institute found more than half of all Australians have been directly impacted by this summer's fires.
But few places saw the degree of impact as the tiny village of Mogo, where leather craftsman Gaspar Roman is fashioning a new belt with donated tools out of the back of a donated van.
(SOUNDBITE OF HAMMERING)
ROTT: You do quick work.
GASPAR ROMAN: That's it, hm? (ph)
ROTT: Behind him are heaps of bent metal and corrugated tin, all that remains of he and his wife Lorena Granados' three-story shop. Granados pulls out her cellphone to show a video of that day.
LORENA GRANADOS: I will just put volume on it. But you can hear it.
(SOUNDBITE OF VIDEO)
GRANADOS: And I'm OK (ph). Oh, my God.
Yeah, it was raining fire.
(SOUNDBITE OF VIDEO)
GRANADOS: And I'm OK, no (ph)?
At this point, I couldn't breathe anymore.
ROTT: They were here, she says, until the end. And even neighbors whose stores survived didn't escape unscathed.
THERESA MATTHEWS: This is my first day in 45 days of being able to reopen.
ROTT: Theresa Matthews is the owner of a candy shop on the other side of the street. Her building looks fine from the outside, but it suffered extensive damage from smoke and ash.
MATTHEWS: Everything, including all of the giftware - everything's all had to be thrown away. We've had to start all over again.
ROTT: And this all happened during peak tourism season, when many of these shops make the money that will last them the rest of the year. The town on this day is bustling, though. The roads have reopened, and tourists from less affected parts of Australia, like Diane Goode, are showing up in droves.
DIANE GOODE: To help the Mogo people out because they lost a lot in the bushfires. So that's our purpose of today - come down and spend some money.
UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: Thank you. We appreciate your support.
MATTHEWS: Thank you very much. Yeah, thanks for your support.
UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #3: Don't worry. We'll be back.
UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: Good on you.
ROTT: Back outside, just off the street, local Claire Polach directs her grandkids where to find some money for ice cream.
CLAIRE POLACH: In my handbag...
ROTT: It's been hard on them the last couple of months, she says. Their family has had to split up since the fires, with some needing to move temporarily to find housing. They are planning to rebuild, though. So is she. Already, she says, trees and plants in her own yard are regrowing.
POLACH: So nature will do its thing - has to recover.
ROTT: How about the people?
POLACH: We watch the nature. If they can recover, we can recover.
ROTT: Nathan Rott, NPR News, Canberra, Australia.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.