Tasmanian bushfires a climate wake up call

Cam Walker

From Chain Reaction #126, April 2016, national magazine of Friends of the Earth, Australia www.archive.foe.org.au/chain-reaction

On January 13, lightning strikes ignited more than 100 spot fires across Tasmania. Many of these became established and were quickly out of control. By mid-February, around 100,000 hectares had been burnt. Overwhelmed by the scale of the fires, the Tasmanian Fire Service (TFS) initially concentrated on human assets like towns and infrastructure.

As TFS workers fought fires that threatened communities, a series of wildfires burnt huge areas in the north-west and on the central plateau. The arrival of milder weather and some rain, as well as additional fire-fighting crews from interstate in the second week, allowed the authorities to slow the fires in mountainous and forested regions.

Large areas of the World Heritage Area and other conservation reserves were burnt. The world famous Overland track was closed, and many tourism operators reported cancellations. The economic and ecological costs of the fires will be enormous.

There are several dimensions to this year's fire season which should worry environmentalists. Firstly, larges areas of the World Heritage Area were burnt. Fire is a feature of some of these landscapes, and some are fire adapted, and they can be expected to recover well. But a second concern is the fact that much of the alpine and sub-alpine vegetation that has been burnt is highly sensitive to fire. Trees more than 1,500 years old, such as Pencil Pines, which are only found in Tasmania, have been destroyed, with recovery expected to take centuries, if it happens at all. Some experts say much of the burnt areas of alpine flora is unlikely to ever recover.

Some of the initial public debate suggested that bush fire is 'natural' in Australia and that these areas will recover. This is not true in the case of much of the vegetation in the mountains of Tasmania. 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.

The third aspect is the question of whether the summer of 2015/16 is a 'normal' fire season. Tasmania has been uncharacteristically warm and dry. This appears to be part of a longer drying trend. Climate scientist Prof Steffen says that extreme fire weather risk in Tasmania has increased over the last 30 years due to the influence of climate change.

As noted by fire ecologist David Bowman in The Guardian, the fires are "a sign of climate change. This is bigger than us. This is what climate change looks like, this is what scientists have been telling people, this is system collapse."

Michael Grose, a climate scientist with the Australian national science agency, says that while scientists haven't yet directly attributed this year to human-caused warming, this fire season is consistent with what we expect climate change to bring to the state: "Dry springs and summers, hotter temperatures and more fires would make it difficult for these ecosystems to continue as they are."

There is the very real risk that we are now witnessing the beginning of the end for these ancient remnants of vegetation. This requires a major re-think about how we manage the World Heritage Area in Tasmania. It seems that in fighting this season's fires, something has gone wrong. Under climate change modelling, it is anticipated that there will be an increase in dry lightning strikes, which can be expected to start fires in remote and mountainous regions. Fire seasons are expected to be longer and start earlier. Yet the Tasmanian government has been engaging in fire fighting with a 'business as usual' mind frame.

Tasmanian fire fighters were only able to undertake substantial action against the wild fires after they had become too large to contain. There are some serious questions about whether the TFS has sufficient resources to fight fires in wild areas. We need to make sure that the lessons of these fires are not lost. We need to be better prepared for the next catastrophic fires, with the ability to stop remote area fires before they become established.

Friends of the Earth launched a petition to the Premier of Tasmania, Will Hodgman, requesting an independent inquiry into the fire. Following a media outcry over the fires, the premier announced an inquiry, adding that it would also consider the possible implications of climate change in terms of future fire risk.

Additional information is online: www.melbourne.archive.foe.org.au/tassie_forest_fires_climate_wake_up_call