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.

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