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Fire Flattens Island Lab

4 April 2007 (All day)
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Ove Hoegh-Guldberg / Centre for Marine Studies, University of Queensland

Coral Sea conflagration.
A fire at the Heron Island Research Station caused $12 million in damages and destroyed 11 buildings.

A fire at the Heron Island Research Station off the coast of Australia has devastated one of the premier scientific facilities on the Great Barrier Reef. Buildings, equipment, and data burned to ashes in a matter of hours. No one was hurt in the accident, however, and researchers vow to get back in action within months.

Located on an 8-hectare island 72 kilometers off Australia's northeastern coast, the station has become a mainstay for research on reef ecology and climate change. An outpost of the Centre for Marine Studies (CMS) at the University of Queensland in Brisbane, the 50-year-old station hosts 1400 scientists, teachers, and students annually. An electrical fault sparked the blaze at 4 a.m. on 30 March. Fanned by strong winds, the flames quickly spread through the dry brush and the station's wooden buildings.

The station's laboratory manager, Kate Dunn, raised the alarm, and the 11 staff members on the island at the time--joined by staff from the nearby Heron Island resort and the Queensland Parks and Wildlife Service--tried to contain the fire. Their efforts were of no avail, even with an ocean of water just a stone's throw away. Temperatures likely rose in excess of 2000 degrees Celsius, as everything but the buildings' metal roofs was incinerated. "I always thought it was going to be a cyclone that would present me with this scenario," Ove Hoegh-Guldberg, a marine biologist who directs the station and CMS, told Science.

The fire gutted 11 buildings at the station and caused $12 million in losses. Most heavily damaged were the island's newly built research complex, the teaching facilities, several laboratories, and the cabins of four staff. A large experiment on ocean acidification, which bleaches and kills coral, was destroyed, says Hoegh-Guldberg. "It was really hard to believe that this experiment, which took 12 months to design and build, is gone."

Still, it could have been worse, Hoegh-Guldberg says. Most of the long-term data sets had been backed up. Also the island's boating and diving operations and administration and researcher accommodation survived intact. The station could be back in business within 2 to 3 months and in full operation within a year, says Hoegh-Guldberg: "This tragedy hasn't killed our enthusiasm or will to rebuild an even better station."

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