Image for Burning our identity: a failure of collective consciousness?

On Wednesday, 2nd March a public meeting convened by wilderness photographer Rob Blakers and others, to discuss the recent fires in fragile Gondwandan relic vegetation communities in and around the Tasmanian World Heritage Area (TWHA), 2% which has been estimated lost. The aesthetic and iconic values at stake were dramatically evoked in a short video of the devastated Lake Mackenzie area.

The packed meeting was then led by presentations from panel of Professors; Jamie Kirkpatrick, Greg Jordan and David Bowman from the University of Tasmania, and consequent panel discussion with the audience. The presentations effectively brought them up to date with a summary of the irreplaceable values lost and at risk of further fires.

Admiration was expressed for the firefghters; however concern was expressed about the slow initial response and the value framework of some decision making.The meeting shed little light on the slow detection and response, or the institutional failure to forsee, prepare for this event in a publicly coherent manner.

The panel gave the impression that the extent was unforseeable in an operational sense and just another emerging manifestation of climate change. Avoidance of controversy about institutional failure is understandable from academic perspectives, but such ambivalence does not assist critical constructive discussion of improvements to disaster preparedness.

On the basis of observed facts, ie: extreme soil dryness in late winter 2015, normal expectations of average or worse summer rainfall patterns, increasing evidence of dry lightning storms since the 1990’s, (Kirkpatrick at this meeting) and known difficulty in extinguishing peat soils; The questions are: Was this disastrous fire not a reasonably forseeable risk? 

And why was no ready-reaction remote firefighting capability in place? Finally, actioned nearly two weeks after the event. By which time the damage was enormous and the length of fireline overwhelming and risks exacerbated. Why were backburning operations conducted to defend replaceable structures by destroying more at the irreplaceable vegetation communities in the Lake Mackenzie area?

Had the risks been identifed in a timely manner, many measures could have been put in place. Dedicated World Heritage capable teams could have been trained, equipped and standing by.  Specialised equipment such as soaker hose lines and lightweight water drilling equipment designed, tested and ready. The military could have trained prepostioned tanker kit equipped aircraft for first attack stationed locally during high risk periods. Critics of water bombing need to be aware that agriculture offers a large suite of liquid application technologies.All such techniques need further development.

Is this a lag in cultural adaptation to change, or is this a paralysis in risk prepardness that has infected a number of Tasmanian institutions? If the Tasmanian Department of Premier and Cabinet is ultimately responsible for ensuring cordinated disaster risk management preparation is in place, how does it propose to address this apparently systemic oversight?

Yet another example of a reasonably foreseeable scenario with no contingency plan in place is the Basslink outage combined with a drought. Effective private solar rollout, like SE Queensland, is a missed strategy in this case. The neglected massive Giblin river fire of 2014 is also another example of failing our responsibilities to humanity as expressed in the TWHA.

I believe most Tasmanians are sick of polarising practices of politicians that prevent successful strategic planning.

If we are are to deal with complex disasters like wilderness wildfires, don’t we need to be able to engage a wide and diverse range of stakeholders, over an adequate time frame to identify, evaluate and plan to mitigate risk?

A process to engage scientific skills and firefighting experience with the stakeholder community, in order to plausibly forsee likely future scenarios and to prepare for them.

As we have seen with attempts at forestry reform, without grace and mutual respect and a strong shared purpose this is difficult, if not impossible..This quality of collaboration being a capability that Australians will need in truckloads to deal with the ongoing surprises of climate change and generally unexpected consequences.

With foresight, open and transparent conversations on the foundations of good science, courteously facilitated between all stakeholders, are a proven methodology for such complexity.

It is apparent the culture of governance still has room for improvement in this area, but are our political parties capable of facilitating such constructive changes?

*Duncan Mills of Cygnet holds no recent organisational affiliations, is a retired land manager, now social ecologist interested in social change processes, particularly how we learn from experience and implement constructive change.

ABC: Tasmania abandons World Heritage Area logging plans on UNESCO advice

Media HERE, for all the reactions ...

ABC: Tasmania’s Tarkine emerges as forest conflict hotspot over speciality timber access The Tarkine is shaping up as the new battleground in the reignited conflict over forestry, as the Tasmanian Government looks for sources of specialty timber outside the World Heritage Area. The Government is abiding by UNESCO’s World Heritage Committee’s ruling against selective logging in the Tasmanian Wilderness World Heritage Area (TWWHA). Forestry Minister Peter Gutwein said the decision was disappointing, but work was underway to assess the availability of special species, such as myrtle and celery top pine, in other reserves and conservation areas. “I’m going to be looking at all of the land outside the TWWHA,” he said. … In 2014, the Government ripped up the Tasmanian Forest Agreement and reclassified about 400,000 hectares from future reserves to future potential production forest, making it available for selective logging in late 2017. The Government is also considering specialty species logging in about one million hectares of reserves and conservation areas, including rainforests in the Tarkine. The Wilderness Society’s Vica Bailey said logging those areas, such as the pipeline corridor in the Tarkine protected under former prime minister John Howard in 2005, was equally unacceptable.