Australia Weather News

Driving into the Kutini-Payamu National Park near Lockhart River in Queensland's Cape York, it is hard to imagine it was created to preserve the Iron Range rainforest.

The sides of the road are lined with piles of trees, some of them at least a metre in diameter and the sound of birds chirping is almost non-existent.

It is a stark contrast to the area described as vital habitat to animals like the cassowary, cuscus, eclectus parrot, palm cockatoo and the green tree python.

Cyclone Trevor swept through the area in March, leaving an unprecedented trail of destruction.

Trevor only reached category three, but brought gale-force winds to the community for more than 10 hours.

"People talk a lot about a freight train running over the top of you, well it certainly was a grinding old freight train this one," said Lockhart River Mayor Wayne Butcher.

"First you … saw a million trees just covered the sky and next minute those trees started falling over — boom, boom, one after the other."

The community escaped with no major structural damage but the rainforest surrounding it was not as lucky.

"When I first got back after Trevor, the forest smelt like dead things," said Iron Range Research Station manager Gabrielle Davidson.

"There was nothing moving out there but me."

Ms Davidson moved to the Iron Range at the start of last year to set up a not-for-profit research station on the outskirts of Lockhart River.

She said, as an ecologist, the idea of living in the Cape York rainforest felt like a fairytale.

"There was a land bridge to Papua New Guinea until just 11,000 years ago," she said.

"So this area is … [an] interchange between Papa New Guinea and the rest of the Australian flora and fauna.

"Sixty per cent of all of Australia's butterflies can be found here; 40 per cent of the mammals and birds of Cape York [are] here."

Ms Davidson was travelling through Papua New Guinea and Indonesia after a year of setting up a network of survey plots in the rainforest and was surfing in Lombok when the cyclone hit and cut her holiday short.

"I couldn't think about anything else, it had become a very important part of my life," she said.

Ms Davidson was on the ground in the Iron Range a week later, leading a team of scientists to re-survey the rainforest.

"The world was up-ended, the canopy was lying all over the ground and to move through it we had to climb and crawl and swing," she said.

"We were getting pretty badly heat affected in places where it had always been dim and cool under the rainforest canopy."

Traditional owners left mourning

The damage also took its toll on Kutini elders Flora Giblet and Roderick Doctor, who consider the rainforest family.

Mr Doctor said he had never seen a cyclone create as much damage to the area as Trevor.

"It's a bit sad for me," he said.

"I almost cried when I hardly see any trees standing up again, especially the big ones that was here for many years and now you hardly see them around.

"We used to hunt a lot in the scrub, come out fishing, hunting for pigs, fishing for jewfish and the mountain perches.

"I used to run through these bushes chasing pigs."

Mr Doctor said he felt a sense of responsibility to look after the rainforest, as the Kutini people had been living off it for thousands of years.

"It's in our blood, our ancestors were warriors ... they used to live off the land and the sea," he said.

"Back in World War II, all our people had to run in the scrub again, so it's really important for us to support the land and the sea.

"Not only for us also for the animals."

Further destruction feared in coming fire season

With the dry season looming and piles of dead trees and debris drying out, locals fear the fire season could be catastrophic.

Fires are a yearly occurrence in the surrounding woodland and the rainforest normally acts as a buffer, with the closed canopy preventing plants drying out.

Lockhart River Mayor Wayne Butcher said the council had a plan to protect the rainforest from fires, but would need help from other agencies.

"The last thing you want is an October/November kind of hot fire on the edges of the rainforest because it will burn into the rainforest and it will destroy it forever."

"We're going to have to talk to the National Parks, who have more resources than us, about how we can coordinate because the rainforest does not just stay in the national park," Councillor Butcher said.

Queensland Parks and Wildlife northern Cape York senior ranger Dan Mead said the organisation was expecting an extreme fire season, which would take extra resources.

"Every year we implement a planned burn program and this year a bit more work will go into that," Mr Mead said.

"It will involve implementing a series of very early season prescribed burns, with the view to try and reduce the fuel load.

"Everybody's fairly light on for resources and funding and we understand that's got to be stretched across a fairly big area."

A lot of the work will fall back on traditional owners and Indigenous rangers, who plan to burn large sections on foot.

Councillor Butcher said it was a good opportunity to educate the younger generation.

"The older people will get in there early and get those cool burns in place before the younger generation gets a bit too silly on the lighter or the matches," he said.

It's a sentiment echoed by Mr Doctor, who said he would like to be involved in educating others.

"We've got to respect the fire, we've got to know how to control it. We can't just let it burn here or there.

"There's a safer way to use fire," he said.

Cyclone Trevor firmly ingrained

The terrifying event and its impact are unlikely to be forgotten in Lockhart River.

The cyclone is being captured in the work of world-renowned local artist Silas Hobson, who said it would stay with the community forever.

"It's all about sharing and spreading the message and keeping it in the history books," he said.

"It was at a time when we had experienced a few cyclones coming through, but none was as terrifying as Trevor."

In the rainforest, unseasonal rain has delayed the fire season and some of the plants are starting to regenerate.

However, Ms Davidson said a return to the glory days was a long way off.

"It will be a healthy functioning forest again and that's so reassuring to know that but the cathedral forests won't come back for decades," she said.

"I don't expect to see them again in my life. I'm lucky to have seen them."