I once worked out that over the years I’ve spent 18 months walking, paddling and climbing in the Tasmanian backcountry. I dare say that figure is even higher now. I’ve been lucky enough to see big chunks of the state, but find myself always gravitating back to the mountains of the central plateau and the middle reaches of the Cradle Mountain National Park.
One of my favourite spots is the north western end of the central plateau. The road up to Lake Mackenzie provides easy access into the high country and as you head out into the tangle of rocky, swampy land dotted with pencil pine, snow gums and endless glacial tarns, the land feels wonderfully remote.
It seems like a miracle that such wild places still exist.
In the last two weeks, an intense wild fire has irrevocably changed much of this area. Luckily it did not burn as far south as the Walls of Jerusalem, but thousand year old pencil pines and vast areas of sub alpine vegetation have been devastated. In the words of one of the first people into the area since this destruction, bushwalker Dan Broun, the area around Lake MacKenzie is a scene of “complete and utter devastation. There is kilometres of burnt ground, everything is dead.”
Fires have raged across Tasmania since lightning strikes ignited more than 100 spot fires on January 13. Since that time, about 14,000 hectares of World Heritage Area (WHA) forests and other vegetation have been incinerated, with almost 100,000 hectares of land burnt in total.
Overwhelmed by the sheer scale of the fires, the Tasmanian Fire Service (TFS) initially – and understandably – concentrated on human assets like towns and infrastructure. As TFS workers fought a heroic campaign against fires that threatened communities, a series of wildfires burnt huge areas in the north west and on the central plateau. It was the arrival of milder weather, as well as additional fire-fighting crews from interstate in the second week – especially teams of remote area fire fighters – that allowed serious operations to occur to slow the fires in mountainous and forested regions.
Still, a number of these fires remain un-contained.
Large areas of the Tarkine, the Mersey Valley and February Plains – within the Walls of Jerusalem and Cradle Mountain – Lake St Clair national parks, and the Central plateau have now burnt. The world famous Overland Track has been closed for more than a week. Part of the Southwest National Park has also burnt, only 15 kilometres up-wind from the walkers’ icon, Mt Anne.
An Unnatural Disaster
Some of the initial public debate has suggested that bushfires are ‘natural’ in Australia and that these areas will recover. As Wild readers will know, this is simply not true in the case of much of the vegetation in the mountains of Tasmania. Yes, destructive fires in the alpine zone are known to have occurred in western Tasmania in the past 10,000 years, yet these fires were extremely infrequent until European colonisation. The cool temperate rainforests and relic species in the mountains date back to the time when Australia was part of the super continent of Gondwana. They are often called the Antarctic flora, and includes the various native pines, the southern beech (Nothofagus) and the deciduous beech.
Fossil evidence suggests that temperate rainforest was widespread in Australia, Antarctica, South America and New Zealand around 45 million years ago and as the climate warmed and became drier, these forests retreated back to small pockets, primarily in Tasmania and south eastern Australia. They have not evolved with fire, and are badly impacted when fires do occur.
We must then consider why this year’s fires are different to any historical example in the region. Globally, 2015 was the warmest year on record, and this was felt particularly strongly in Tasmania. The fire season started early and the state has been uncharacteristically dry. The conditions were ripe for big fires. When they happened, they were focused in the centre and north west, triggered by lightning. The TFS is used to fighting fires in the east and south east, but this year was different.
Is it just an anomaly or is something else at play? A growing number of scientists are pointing the finger at climate change. David Bowman, a professor of environmental change biology at the University of Tasmania says climate change is to blame. “We are in a new place. We just have to accept that we’ve crossed a threshold, I suspect. This is what climate change looks like.”
Climate scientist Proffesor Will Steffen says that extreme fire weather risk in Tasmania has increased over the last 30 years due to the influence of climate change. Although the climate of western Tasmania has not changed very much, as yet, as a result of global warming, the incidence of dry lightning strikes has increased markedly from last century to the present. According to David Lindenmayer, a professor of ecology and conservation biology at the Australian National University, lightning was expected to increase under climate modelling. This has been the case in recent decades in Tasmania, so much so that a fire risk assessment of the World Heritage Area (WHA) warned that lightning fires should no longer be viewed as “natural” because of the influence of climate change. It concluded that lightning fires were now the main threat to the survival of the WHA.
The View From the Ground
For anyone who knows this area, the damage is heart breaking. As the first images start to come out from the Lake Mackenzie region it is clear that we have lost significant areas of vegetation that is unlikely to regenerate fully in our lifetime.
As we consider the impacts of these fires, the world seems poorer and it feels like we are staring into a dark abyss of loss as we confront the fact that the mountain and rainforest vegetation that characterises so much of Tasmania could be changed beyond recognition in a handful of decades.
Climate change is re-writing the way the world works. There is no doubt that our kids will inherit a very different world to the one we did. To my mind what is happening in the mountains and plains of north west Tasmania underscores yet again the need to do everything in our power to slow climate change. At its simplest we need to stop burning fossil fuels on a mass scale and transition as rapidly as possible to renewable energy sources and much smarter ways of meeting our needs as humans.
Back on the ground in Tasmania, we have to do what we can to ensure remaining areas of this precious vegetation is not burnt in future. It seems that something has gone wrong: clearly Tasmanian fire-fighting authorities have insufficient resources to be able to contain these types of fires under the record dry conditions.
There is a growing call for an inquiry into the fires, to determine whether there needs to be additional resources available for fighting fires in remote areas like the WHA. This should also investigate whether the federal government needs to provide support to enhance air support, training, and resources for remote area fire fighters, whether preparations for fires are suitably informed by climate-change scenarios, and what restoration programs will be required after the 2016 fires.
A petition to the Tasmanian premier and federal environment minister is available here.
Cam Walker is a representative of Friends of the Earth Australia. He provides updates on the Tasmanian bushfire crisis via his blog, as well as other information regarding environmental protection and policy.