SYDNEY - An ancient and rare species of tree has been saved from Australia's bush fires by a specialist team of firefighters.
Australia's Wollemi pines survived the dinosaurs, and were protected from huge blazes near Sydney by water-bombing aircraft and specialist firefighters, who were winched into a narrow gorge by helicopter.
"It was a military-style operation," said Matt Kean, the New South Wales environment minister. "We had fire retardant, irrigation systems. We winched staff into the area to make sure that we were doing everything we could to protect the trees, and fortunately it paid off.
"These trees can be found nowhere else in the world. In fact, there are only 200 left on the planet, so we needed to do everything we could to protect them and ensure they were able to survive into the future," he added.
The Wollemi National Park near Sydney is the only place in the world where these giant trees are found in the wild. Before 1994, they were thought to be extinct. Experts believe the pines are an invaluable link to Australia's prehistoric past, and have estimated the grove could be up to 200 million years old.
Their exact location is a secret because of fears that visitors could bring in pathogens that might cause disease. Some trees were charred by the flames, and a couple of trees were destroyed, but this rare species has survived Australia's bush fire crisis.
The fires have killed 29 people and an estimated one billion animals, as well as destroying hundreds of homes.
Heavy rain has fallen across southeastern Australia, offering some relief for fire crews battling dozens of blazes, but there are concerns the wet weather could cause landslides and flash flooding.