| 28.10,19. 11:32 PM |
Ramsar-protected Macquarie Marshes wetland on fire with 90pc of crucial reed bed razed
Photo: A large wildfire has been burning in the Macquarie Marshes near Warren since Saturday. (Supplied: Macquarie Marshes Environmental Landholders Association)
Photo: Professor Richard Kingsford said the marshes are in very poor shape now because they are not getting the water they need to survive. (Supplied: Macquarie Marshes Environmental Landholders Association)
Firefighters are battling to stop a large bushfire from destroying the tinder-dry Macquarie Marshes in western New South Wales.
The Ramsar-protected wetland regularly supports more than 20,000 waterbirds, and more than 500,000 birds when there are large floods.
But the blaze, which started on Saturday, has so far burnt 3,000 hectares of national park and early estimates suggest 90 per cent of the wetland's main reed bed has been razed.
Director of the Centre for Ecosystem Science at the University of New South Wales Professor Richard Kingsford feared the fire could destroy the unique ecosystem.
"Reeds are very deep-rooted plants, but they can only come back if there's water in the system," Professor Kingsford said.
"This reed bed is one of the most extensive in the whole Murray-Darling Basin."
Reed bed at risk
National Parks and Wildlife Service director of operations Rob Smith said it was not uncommon for fire to sweep through the Macquarie Marshes.
"Three fires have swept through the same area of the national park in the past 10 years," he said.
But with sub-soil moisture at critical low levels, the heat of the fire could cause catastrophic damage to the root zone of the reed bed.
In typical seasons, the reeds' root systems were protected by cool wet mud and would re-shoot after the next flooding event.
"The last inflows into the Macquarie Marshes occurred in December 2018, and there's been no significant rain in the catchment since," Mr Smith said.
"So it is a very dry environment currently."
Mr Smith said a comprehensive assessment of the fireground would take place as soon as feasibly possible.
Drought, fire threaten endangered species
Professor Kingsford has been studying waterbirds in the Macquarie Marshes for almost 30 years.
Right now it was the driest he had ever seen it.
"It's almost impossible to find any water in the northern part of the Macquarie Marshes," he said.
"Water birds there are extremely low in numbers and when we were out there in September there were a lot of dead and dying animals around.
"It is very grim at the moment."
Professor Kingsford said the reed bed was home to one critically endangered bird — the Australasian bittern.
"These birds breed in the reed beds and there are very few in the wild, and certainly not to the same extent that we find them in the Macquarie Marshes," he said.
"It's going to be very important to get flooded in the next year so the roots can survive."
Massive flood needed
Floodplain landholder Dugald Bucknell runs his grazing operation alongside the national park.
He described the latest wildfire as the "devastating" consequence of drought and failed water policy.
In August, the Berejiklian Government intervened to divert water from the Macquarie River at Warren to drought-hit towns such as Cobar and Nyngan.
"There's no water in Burrendong Dam upstream of the marshes, there's virtually no water in stock and domestic dams downstream of it, and somehow we're meant to wish for a miracle to re-wet our marshlands," Mr Bucknell said.
He said the wetlands were not getting the water they needed to survive and feared more fires would follow.
"It's becoming unsustainable. Its frightening," Mr Bucknell said.
"We're killing off our kids' and grandkids' future to take a bit more water elsewhere in the system."