Native Australian horticulturist watches in horror as her home country burns


Casitas Springs is a tiny community halfway between Ventura and Ojai, where there are mobile home parks, churches, … and a plant nursery.

Jo O’Connell moved there 27 years ago to start her business. She found a gap in the market for Australian plants.

“I did count it once. At various times, I suppose I’ve grown 2000 species of plants,” she says. “Then I found a husband, and I’ve been stuck here ever since.”

She almost dropped everything and moved back home two years ago. She was one of the hundreds of people who lost their homes in the 2017 Thomas Fire.

“The locals tell us that the wind changed and came up over the hill and ignited the palm tree and eucalyps [sic], but we don’t know for sure,” she says. “Two years later, we’re still waiting to build.”

Various roadblocks to rebuild mean Jo O’Connell hasn’t been able to break ground on her new house yet, two years after her old house burned down.

Behind her greenhouses are several piles of dirt between neatly dug trenches. That’s the progress she’s made on rebuilding her home.

The house, the office, and a barn where she worked on her plants all burned down. A couple of neighbors saved a cottage on the property where O’Connell and her husband live now.

“After the fire when we thought we lost our nursery as well as our house, I thought I just want to go back to Australia, I’ve done my time here, this is too much. Then all the horticulturists, all the plant people, they all rallied, they made a collection, they gave me credit at seed merchants in Australia, they sent me cuttings from their farms. I went, ‘Oh no I have to stay,’ ” she says.

So O’Connell is still here. She still visits Australia every year to see her family. The last time she went was in November, two months after the fires burning there first sparked. And she says she was glad to come back to California.

“It was too much, and I suppose some of that is from the shock of being in the fire over here. You could smell the smoke, taste the smoke … It’s just really gotten out of control.”

The Australian “mega fire” has burned more than 20 million acres. To put that into context, the Thomas Fire is the second largest in California history. The fires in Australia are the size of more than 73 Thomas Fires put together.

To put it another way, if you drew a line from Los Angeles, to Bakersfield, to Las Vegas, to Palm Springs, it would be like burning everything within that square.

So O’Connell is glad she’s not witnessing the fires firsthand, but she says even watching it from afar is horrifying: “It’s just gut-wrenching, it’s depressing. You just can’t imagine. It’s our country and you feel like you’re part of it. And it’s just burning up. It’s beyond belief, really.”

Wildfires aren’t that unusual in Australia. Many of the trees there have hard, thick bark that can withstand fires. But add a long drought and record-breaking heat, and O’Connell says many trees don’t stand a chance.

“There are so many rare plants there that could be gone now. They were so fragile to begin with. And now with such a big fire. … The real danger is subtropical rainforests north of Sydney, between Sydney and Brisbane that’ve been affected. Rainforests don’t usually burn. The trees in those forests usually have a thin skin, so their capability of coming back is not good,” she says.

And with such a unique landscape, the destruction in Australia could mean some of those species have gone extinct.

“Thirty species of trees they [reports/experts] say could be wiped out,” she says. “The pottaroo, which is like a little rat kangaroo, very cute, they’re talking about being wiped out.”

She’s worried about her family too. Her 90-year-old mother still lives in New South Wales, where some of the fires continue to burn. Her closest cousin is a volunteer firefighter, and she hasn’t heard from him in two days.

“It’s inexplicable, it’s helpless, it’s just a disaster. … It’s depressing.”

And as the fires continue burning in Australia, O’Connell is still picking up the pieces after the Thomas Fire burned her property.

It’s been two years, but many of her plants are still trying to regrow after the fire. Some might not survive.

She peels back a piece of bark from a tree: “Look at that. That looks like it’s all dead.”

The good news is most of her business is growing plants and selling their seeds and cuttings. So most of the plants that didn’t survive, she can regrow.

And a few of them are stronger than ever.

“This big tree was right in the middle there. It burnt and it came back. It’s a Brachychiton acerifolius. It’s from the Australian rainforest,” she says.

The Illawarra Flame Tree in O’Connell’s yard survived the Thomas Fire. It’s known for its bright red flowers in the late spring.

After the fire, that tree was still standing. She worried the construction on her new house would kill it, so she had it moved. And she was worried it wouldn’t survive.

“It hasn’t looked back. Look, it’s grown six foot since we planted it or maybe eight foot.”

In Southern California, it’s a living reminder of Australian resilience.

“So that’s the fire tree. It’s called the Illawarra Flame,” she says. “That’s my favorite tree.”

If you want to help with Australia fire relief efforts, check out these resources: 

World Wildlife Fund is taking donations to help the koalas.

The Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (RSPCA) of the most affected state, New South Wales, is taking donations to help its work with wildlife.

Wildlife Information, Rescue and Education Service Inc. (WIRES), Australia’s largest wildlife rescue organization, is taking donations. 

The Australian Red Cross is sending staff members and volunteers to communities affected by the fires and to provide support to displaced people sheltering in more than 69 evacuation and recovery centers. The Red Cross also provides emergency grants to help people cover their immediate needs.

The St. Vincent de Paul Society is collecting donations.

The Salvation Army Australia is collecting donations.

The New South Wales rural fire service is battling on the front lines and could use your support too. 

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