Tasmania’s precious World Heritage forests are currently facing the worst crisis in decades.
Given the record low spring rainfalls throughout Tasmania last year, the present fire-threatening summer has become an inevitable and disturbing event as more than 50 fires burn throughout the state.
Ignited by lightning strikes, many of these are in remote areas, and one ponders on how things will pan out for our wild forests over the next month or two.
Wildfires in wilderness are a natural phenomenon, but with increased frequency of such events due to climate change, the threat to the island’s endemic flora and fauna has never been greater.
Tasmania’s sclerophyll forests have always been subjected to cyclic natural wildfire, and these evolutionary events have created much of the rich tapestry of biodiversity that the island now celebrates.
But in the alpine highlands the evolution of fire frequency has played a less influential role where fire sensitive vegetation is dominant, and endemism is high.
Whilst most wildfires in the past were mosaic, the potential for a broad catastrophic fire to sweep entirely across the western wilderness looms as a real threat.
Since European settlement fires have ravaged many parts of Tasmania, particularly in the West.
Encroaching settlement, land clearing, ignorance and recreational torching have all played their part. It is has been estimated that Western Tasmania has lost over half of its endemic athrotaxis forests in the past 200 years from uncontrolled/human caused fires.
Catastrophic fires of the past ...
Large stands of pine stags are still visible from past catastrophic fires such as the south Picton Range in the 1930’s, the massive Central Plateau fire of 1960, and the Raglan Range/ Frenchmans Cap/ Deception range fire in 1961.
These magnificent forests will take centuries to recover, if ever, given modern fire frequency, slow growth rates and poor seed dispersal. Some places like the extensive deciduous forests around Frenchmans Cap will probably never re-establish.
Of all the fires currently burning out West, three of these pose real threats to large tracts of high conservation world-significant forests.
1 - The Dempster Plains fire, which is nearing 20,000 hectares already burnt, is expanding in all directions beyond the heathland scrub, and is now entering parched rainforests into the Rapid, Sumac and Donaldson catchments. This fire is immediately west of the largest single tract of temperate rainforest in the nation.
It would take exceptional circumstances to wipe this grand expanse of rainforest out, though modern history attests such a possibility as similar conditions prevailed when the Savage river/Meredith Range fire in 1982 swept across the rainforest clad country between the Savage and Pieman Rivers incinerating approximately 15,000 hectares of primeval forest.
2 - The Lake Mackenzie fire that is currently burning in the north-western alpine regions of the Central Plateau could easily be driven by hot northerly winds south into the grandest stands of ancient pencil pine forest in the state within the Clumner Bluff and the Walls of Jerusalem area. The organic peat soils of the highlands south of Lake Mackenzie could stay alight for months if there is no substantial rain over summer.
The worst-case scenario is for the Mackenzie fire to link up with the Patons Road, February Plains and Lake Bill fires in the Mersey catchment and encroach into the WHA southward.
3 – The Gordon Road fire between Lake Pedder and the Gordon impoundment could go anywhere throughout the WHA under unfavourable winds. The fragile alpine reaches of Mt Field to the East or Mt Anne to the south may come under threat if this fire gets totally out of control.
So how does Tasmania protect these forests? Given the lack of fire-fighting resources, the inherent political and cultural resentment towards nature, and the anthropocentric priority to protect the smallest of human infrastructure over centuries-old forests.
Rain seems the only prospect at present, and hopefully through next week’s forecast precipitation our wild forests may be delivered from peril.
• Hon. Malcolm Turnbull,
Prime Minister of Australia.
Dear Prime Minister,
The bushfire threat in the Tasmanian Wilderness World Heritage Area is extremely alarming. If between now and the end of April Tasmania experiences a heat wave with strong winds some of the most beautiful places on the high Central Plateau and in the Walls of Jerusalem National Park and beyond will be incinerated. They would take centuries, if ever, to recover.
The heart of the Tarkine wilderness to the west of the World Heritage Area, but containing its own World Heritage values, is also alight and similarly threatened.
Urgent national assistance to douse the current fires before catastrophic conditions arise is warranted. Tasmania’s resources are already stretched to the limit.
We urge you to take immediate action to send to Tasmania the necessary equipment - there is no shortage of water in these fires’ localities - and personnel to bring the situation under control before it is too late.
• Carol Rea in Comments: Why isn’t there an Aircrane deployed here. Two of these could have made all the difference a few days ago. Now there is a window of opportunity. Greg Hunt and Malcolm Turnbull need to step up to protect our WH and Tarkine reainforests. There are 6 Aircranes in Australia - three in Victoria. The S64 Aircrane can drop 2,650 gallons (7,500 liters) of water on fires in a single pass. With specialized snorkels, the Aircrane can also refill the tank in nearby bodies of water in less than 30 seconds. Fire Aviation HERE
Comment 7 below ...
• Guardian: World heritage forests burn as global tragedy unfolds in Tasmania A global tragedy is unfolding in Tasmania. World heritage forests are burning; 1,000-year-old trees and the hoary peat beneath are reduced to char. Fires have already taken stands of king billy and pencil pine – the last remaining fragments of an ecosystem that once spread across the supercontinent of Gondwana. Pockets of Australia’s only winter deciduous tree, the beloved nothofagus – whose direct kin shade the sides of the South American Andes – are now just a wind change away from eternity. Unlike Australia’s eucalyptus forests, which use fire to regenerate, these plants have not evolved to live within the natural cycle of conflagration and renewal. If burned, they die. To avoid this fate, they grow high up on the central plateau where it is too wet for the flames to take hold. But a desiccating spring and summer has turned even the wettest rainforest dells and high-altitude bogs into tinder. Last week a huge and uncharacteristically dry electrical storm flashed its way across the state, igniting the land. While these events have occurred in the past, says David Bowman, a professor of environmental change biology at the University of Tasmania, they were extremely rare, happening perhaps once in a millennium. “It’s killing trees that are over 1,000 years old; it’s burning up soil that takes over 1,000 years to accumulate,” he says. If this truly were a once-in-1,000-year event, says Bowman, then to be alive when it occurs is like “winning TattsLotto” for a fire scientist. But we no longer live in the same world. “We are in a new place,” he says. “We just have to accept that we’ve crossed a threshold, I suspect. This is what climate change looks like.” …
FRIDAY January 29 ...
• What The Examiner Editorial reckons (also known as the Troglodyte pronounces ...) IT is politically naive for the Greens to seek funding for fighting fires in remote World Heritage areas while the rest of the community is stressing over the defence of their homes and livestock. It makes you wonder at times if the Greens holiday on another planet. We know that they are definitely not saying: sacrifice life and property for the sake of the wilderness. Their emphasis, however, on protection of the World Heritage area, while not being strong advocates of burnoffs, does not endear them to the broader community …
• UTAS Professor David Bowman, The Conversation: Fires in Tasmania’s ancient forests are a warning for all of us … The fires are extremely destructive for two main reasons. First, the fires are threatening vegetation that is unique to Tasmania, including iconic alpine species such as the Pencil Pine and cushion plants, as well as temperate rainforests. Second, the fires are burning up large areas of organic soils upon which the unique Tasmanian vegetation depends. It is extremely unlikely burnt areas with the endemic alpine flora will ever fully recover given the slow growth of these species and the increased risk of subsequent fires given the change to more flammable vegetation and the slow accumulation of peat soils, which takes thousands of years. …