Thursday, 4 February 2016

A Tasmanian Catastrophe

Have you ever stepped into one of those pubs? I mean the dingy, seedy, noisy type of establishment, where most of the patrons love nothing better than a loud, aggressive argument, and a fist fight is just a misplaced word away? I feel as though I’ve been in one of those pubs for much of the last week.

It’s not been an actual pub of course, but the internet. And these days the web joins the pub and the media as one of the major courts of public opinion. The arguments and potential fisticuffs have been about the bushfires that are still burning in the wilder parts of Tasmania. I’ve been arguing that these fires are catastrophic, and require urgent action. But I've been met with a dismaying array of counter arguments and even indifference.

[Burned scene with cushion plants, near Lake Mackenzie, 2016. (Photo courtesy Rob Blakers)] 
Let’s start with some bare facts that should be beyond argument.
  • 2015 was one of the driest and warmest years on record in Tasmania
  • Spring 2015 was the driest ever recorded in Tasmania
  • On January 13, 2016, and again on January 27, thunderstorms crossed our island state
  • Lightning strikes not accompanied by significant rain (commonly known as dry lightning) ignited more than 70 fires
  • Most fires started in remote, uninhabited areas, including the Central Plateau, part of the Tasmanian Wilderness World Heritage Area (TWWHA), and the Tarkine region in the state’s far north-west
  • As of the time of writing, many thousands of hectares - some 2% of the Wilderness World Heritage Area - have been burned
  • As of the time of writing, no human lives have been lost, and no houses have burned down

[Recently burned pine, Central Plateau (Photo courtesy Rob Blakers)]
For what follows, I want to concentrate on the fires in the Central Plateau, and most particularly those burning in its rare high-altitude plant communities. I will start by looking at, and responding to, some of the dismaying, misleading or just plain wrong ideas about the fires in those alpine areas.

“Fire is a natural part of the Australian environment: always has been, always will be.”

It’s true that in many places across much of Australia, fire shapes our vegetation. But there are some very notable exceptions. Plant communities which have developed in the absence of fire include rainforests and the relict Gondwanan vegetation of Tasmania. That includes pencil pines, King Billy pines and deciduous beech, and the complex, waterlogged peat soil communities in which they thrive.

These plant communities, some of which date back 65 million years, are so special and so rare anywhere in the world, that they were one of the main reasons the Tasmanian wilderness was declared to be of World Heritage significance by UNESCO. But these plant communities are not at all fire-adapted. Pencil pines, for instance, regenerate via the shedding of cones, which occurs only every five or six years. They can also spread vegetatively via suckering. Neither method allows them to spread far from the parent tree, which is one reason we see them growing in stands. One hot, local fire will kill both the trees and their seeds, leading to local extinction.

Fire is NOT a natural part of the highest and wettest parts of the Tasmanian highlands. Fire ecologists tells us that natural fires have been either totally absent, or extremely rare, over much of this country for millions of years.

[No regrowth for this dead giant (Photo courtesy Rob Blakers)]
“These fires were caused by lightning, so they were totally natural. Surely this is what has always happened.”

While these fires were caused by lightning, this has not always happened in Tasmania. Dry lightning was once very rare, but is now happening with greater frequency. This was predicted to be one of the results of climate change, as warmer, longer dry periods, and more frequent extreme events (including thunderstorms in Tasmania) occur. Dry lightning fires have now been regularly recorded most years since 2003, and some consider this to be the “new normal”.

 “Surely Aboriginal people burned all of Tasmania over many thousands of years.”

Yes they did, but with two big provisos. Firstly their use of fire was usually small scale rather than landscape wide. And it occurred during the cooler months. Their so called “mosaic burns” promoted patches of regrowth, but left adjacent areas as unburned refuges for the mammals they were hunting. Secondly, waterlogged and peat areas, including pine stands, would have mostly been untouched by such fires, as they contained little grazing grass and didn’t burn well in the cooler seasons.

[A stand of healthy pencil pine, Central Plateau]
“It’s an El Nino year. We always get hot, dry weather in Tasmania during an El Nino pattern. This is no different.”

Actually it is different. While this is an El Nino summer, the extreme conditions in such years – including the occurrence of dry lightning – are becoming accentuated as a result of climate change. As Professor David Bowman of the University of Tasmania says, “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.”

“Fire regenerates the bush. There have been big fires in the highlands before, and the bush recovers.”

Fire does not regenerate all species. As we saw above, pencil pines are killed outright by hot fires. Other species, and the peat soils on which they depend, are also killed by fire.

[Recovery? 50 years after a fire at Great Pine Tier: click to enlarge] 
As for the fires that previously ravaged the plateau, such as the deliberately lit fires of 1960-61, it’s very clear that the bush did not recover (see photo above). Thousands of dead pencil pines, and peat soils burned down to bedrock, stand as witness to their local extinction. Other species slowly take over, but the unique Gondwanan coniferous heathland is gone forever.

* * *

As I step out of “pub”, I realise that we’re never going to resolve this dispute through argument alone. If I had my way I would far prefer taking some of the “pub’s patrons” with me into these pine-dotted landscapes to experience them for themselves.

I’d want them to share the unique light, to breathe that strangely ancient air, to feel the timelessness of these ancient stands. I try to imagine them joining me just a month ago when, as a tired bushwalker looking for a safe place to put my tent, I took refuge in a stand of pencil pines close by a lake. Putting my tent up beside their stout trunks, I lay back on a bed of pine needles and watched as stars wheeled overhead, filtered through the foliage. If they’d been there they too might have known the comfort, shade and shelter, and the indefinable, muted peacefulness that these pines give.

[The comfort of pines: Central Plateau] 
And what if we’d been there together on the night of those storms, as vast clouds loomed and darkened, and lightning slashed from the sky, but rain refused to fall? Then in the growing dark, as flames from the lightning-lit fires became visible, would they have remained indifferent then? Or if they’d joined my friends Dan Broun and Rob Blakers, who walked through the charred landscapes to record this catastrophe just days after the fires started, what would their argument have been then? Having experienced these unique places, wouldn’t they have wanted to do anything to prevent this sort of catastrophe ever happening?

Any parent who loves a child, any person who loves another, will know how fiercely you want to protect what you love. It’s time more of us loved these ancient treasures before it’s too late. They’re in need of our protection now.

* * *
I would like to acknowledge the fire crews from many Tasmanian and interstate agencies, plus remote area fire fighters from as far away as New Zealand, who have been working incredibly hard to quell these fires. It is a very complex task in rugged terrain, with difficult access in sometimes extreme weather conditions. Low cloud and rain have sometimes made it difficult to get to the fires and to assess their condition, as this is mostly done via helicopter. It still remains to be seen whether they were given sufficient resources, at an early enough stage, to adequately deal with this catastrophe.

Sunday, 24 January 2016

First Impressions: The Patch, Part 2

Love at first sight? I’m not a firm believer. For me love often has a slow burn. Take kunanyi/Mt Wellington for instance. My first impression of it was probably no more favourable than that of Charles Darwin, who described it as “of no picturesque beauty” after his 1836 visit.

His view may have been coloured by his own gloom at the time: see my earlier post here. And my own less-than-favourable impression was doubtless related to first seeing it just 9 years after the catastrophic 1967 bushfires. Back then the mountain’s slopes were scarred by the grey ghosts of a vast burned forest.

[kunanyi/Mt Wellington at sunset] 
But now; how shall I count the ways in which I love this mountain? Allow me one. 

Shortly after first moving here, I am driving home at dusk. A sou’wester is easing after a cold, wet change. The sky is pale, drained of both light and dust. Against that sky the mountain is a decoupage in black, the line of it as crisp as the air, climbing uninterrupted to The Pinnacle. In the falling dark I am not seeing the actual mountain. But I am seeing its shape as a hint, a promise of altitude and wildness; of untamed cold; of uncounted future experiences.

When it comes to “my” patch of bush on the slopes of that mountain, I have more difficult accurately recalling my first impressions. I know that on moving to this place in 1986, I was all eyes for the mountain: that and the amazing garden I could scarcely believe had come with the house.

It was May, and the predominantly European and American trees were in their late autumn glory. As much as I loved Australian native plants, my head was still turned by that blushing northern deciduousness.

[The scarlet oak in its autumn glory] 
But it was a spacious garden – three quarters of an acre – and upslope, in the back garden, the native bush was dominant. Tall stringy barks and massive blue gums jostled with straggly wattle trees. A large, ramshackle chicken yard hogged the block’s best view. And beyond that, there was more bush, a lot of it.

Our children were young back then, and excursions into the patch of bush were only occasional. More often we were up there chasing our dog, a talented escapologist, able to leap tall fences in a single bound. Poor “Angus” contracted canine distemper on one early jaunt. He survived, but it left him with a nervous tick (chorea), which led us to mistakenly believe him mentally impaired. (He later demonstrated a quite startling intelligence: but that’s another story.)

[A blue gum at the edge of the patch] 
With Scottish Anglophile ancestry (now there’s a contradiction in terms!), I not only loved mountains, I also loved well-tended fields, hedges and other such English countryside staples. So when the drive/walk to and from the city took me past our local brewery’s small field, I responded much as I did to deciduousness.

As with those northern trees, the field would change dramatically with the seasons. Green in winter, it would grow lush and tall in spring, waving colourful seed-laden heads in the November winds, before turning golden in high summer. 

[Mowing the brewery field in summer] 
In a good year they might cut two loads of hay, leaving the field pale and stubbly until autumn’s cooler wet allowed new growth. That the field had a few poplars edging it added to that sense of gradual, perceptible seasonality. Much harder to notice, and far more complex, were the seasonal changes in our patch of bush. The field’s delights I quickly saw and enjoyed in those early years. Yet 'though it stood so close by, it took many more years, and a willingness to pay attention to detail, for me to learn a little of our native bush. But again, that’s another story.

[The Patch starts at the top of the field] 

Friday, 8 January 2016

Notes From a Small Patch of Bush

[A preface to an occasional series about my local bush]

How do I – how does anyone – put words around a landscape? First I’d probably want to narrow down my definition of landscape. I would start with a “small patch of bush”, a walkable chunk of my local landscape.

[A grassy paddock marks one boundary of "the patch"] 
That “small patch” would be roughly framed by a few South Hobart roads; a vagrant bit of bush that has avoided being developed. I could add that the Hobart Rivulet runs through most of it; that the Cascade Brewery owns or leases the bulk of it; that it falls some 200m – steeply at times – from the lower foothills of the mountain, and towards the Rivulet and the Derwent.

I could go on to talk about its particular shape and dimensions. Picture it as a misshapen rectangle roughly 3km long by 500m wide, giving it an area of around 150 hectares or 370 acres. But to my mind such measures, and all of the descriptors above, are like IQ scores: they give only the roughest idea of one measure of something-that-might-mean-nothing-at-all. Once I lived on a flattish 1300 acre rural property. Describing its relatively featureless terrain wouldn’t have troubled anyone’s vocabulary. It certainly didn’t fire my imagination.

[Hobart city beneath the wintry summit of kunanyi/Mt Wellington] 
Not so these 370 acres. Here imagination bursts out of any arbitrary frame I might try to put around the “patch”. Because beyond our bush there is more bush, serious bush. It’s possible to walk through that bush – as I have done in the past – all the way from my home to the 1270m summit of kunanyi/Mt Wellington. And I needn’t stop there. I could go on over the mountain and keep walking into the remote south-west wilderness. I would need to cross only a handful of roads, most of them dirt tracks or fire-trails.

From where I write I look out on that bush and that mountain, and can plot just such a walk. It’s imagination, and not just personal history, that powers our sense of a place. And this place, this patch, with its actual connection into the wild, is one that has held my imagination, and given me a strong sense of place, for the 30 years I’ve lived here.

[A dragonfly: the bush is home to numerous such invertebrates] 
Still, so far I’ve said nothing that actually paints a picture of this bush: its plants, animals, history, geology, geomorphology. And all those “-ologies” do seriously contribute to our understanding of a place, a landscape. I have written, and will write more, about those aspects of the patch. But for this preface to further writings from my small patch of bush, I want to enter it imaginatively via one recent episode, and ask: what does the bush mean to my 20 month old granddaughter?

[Two of my granddaughters on the Christmas tree hunt: photo by Sally Oakley] 
A few of us are on a pre-Christmas excursion, hunting for some Christmas trees. It’s been raining, so our small granddaughter has her rain suit and gumboots on. They give her an added degree of determination, as if she had any need of that. Before long she shakes off any guiding hands, stomps along the track – straight through any puddles – and stops only when there’s something interesting to pick up and examine. That means about every 10 metres or so. It is a long excursion.

Only for the steepest bit of track does her aunty hoist her up for a while. When we reach the feral Pinus radiata trees, she’s down again, watching while we select a few. Things like land tenure, weed trees, Christmas, bow saws, even time itself are probably lost on her. 

[Our 20 month old granddaughter carries her Christmas prize: photo by Sally Oakley] 
But she carries one of the smaller prizes for a while, and I wonder. Will she remember the whiff of freshly cut pine; the soft swish of needles on her face; the feel of warm hands; the laughter and sense of occasion; the raucous cockatoos? And will she associate that with the bush, our bush, any bush? I suspect that’s how our imaginations start to be fired. And why we want to put words around our place.