Tasmanian Times

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After the fires …

The relentless convoy of the waterbombing helicopters overhead has halted. The last of the evacuees have packed up their mattresses and belongings and left the Huon Valley PCYC. And the re-traumatised army veterans scattered across the valley can rest a smidgin easier again.

Surprising, in the end, the smoke mostly dispersed without any fanfare. It’s surely time to unpack the Ute, haul in the suitcases and rehang the framed photographs; unblock the gutters, roll up the fire hoses and, to take stock. And for those of us who escaped relatively unscathed, to exhale and to thank our lucky stars.

No need now to scan the sky for the proximity of billowing black smoke and no need to watch out for drifting ash or burning embers. No call now to be spooked by flames lighting up the night sky on the hills overlooking Castle Forbes Bay. And, no need to scan the TFS Alerts List for the umpteenth time.

Even the corridor conversations and informal debriefings at work about who lost what or who saw what, and who stayed to defend are starting to be surprisingly repetitious. It’s time now for the school kids to head off to their bus stops and for us all to resume our daily routines.

It’s way too early for any blame games or recriminations, or even the wisdom of armchair experts. It’s difficult to comprehend that just over the river from us, several homes were lost, and harder still to believe that almost 200,000 hectares of this small island’s wilderness areas have now been laid waste. The devastating impact on the wildlife is almost unimaginable. It’s still only early February. Who knows what lies ahead?

But what about all those firefighters? In difficult and inaccessible terrain, how these men and women do this dirty dangerous work, almost defies belief. Mostly volunteers, they are surely Australia’s modern-day unsung heroes.

Our valley is regaining its hues, its clear skies, its beauty and its sense of tranquillity. The welcome sight of the mist, hanging low all along the Huon river was back this morning – as if it had never really gone. Even the birds sound more exuberant as if they too know they’ve had a reprieve. The gums that swayed with menace just a few days ago, are now saturated by recent rain and it’s as if even in the bush, a sense of normality has been regained.

We’ve had a wake up call on so many levels. And we won’t be taking anything for granted. But for now, at least we’re simply relieved and grateful, but mindful too that there are likely more extreme weather events in store.

We’ll settle for small signs. Like the healthy-looking echidna that emerged yesterday evening from the bush to slake its thirst from our depleted dam. Come to think of it, even a tiger snake or too, would be almost welcome. Almost.

Philip Lynch more or less grew up in rural Ireland. And. after too many years in Melbourne, I finally finally made it to Tasmania five years ago’. Philip works as a nurse. The Irish Times has published some of his emigration pieces. The Age has also …

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20 Comments

20 Comments

  1. JDN

    February 14, 2019 at 10:04 pm

    Let me play devils advocate if I may. We can with reasonable accuracy determine historical fire events in our native eucalypt forests (mountain ash) . We only need to look at areas with the tallest eucalypt populations. We have areas of rainforest with 400 year old trees, which being mountain ash, evolved to germinate in fire.

    If we know that our current rainforests once endured large wildfire events 400 years ago, is it not inconceivable then to suggest that we may be witness to a once in a thousand year event where our Highland flora is exposed to wildfire, encouraged by the surrounding fire adapted eucalypt and above mean warm, dry temperatures.

    We know that 400 years can pass without wildfire in rainforest locations today, and that we have 1000 year old pines in our highlands. A 1000 years is nothing compared to the length of time these species have existed and evolved in Tasmania.

    Yes the climate is changing, but is it also possible that we are just witnessing a natural cycle european settlers have yet to observe?

    • Russell

      February 15, 2019 at 3:23 pm

      Do you have anything to provide to back your comment?

      Read Chapter 6 of The Biggest Estate on Earth for a start.

    • Clive Stott

      February 18, 2019 at 5:33 pm

      ” … We know that 400 years can pass without wildfire in rainforest locations today.”

      Do you really think so JDN?

      I think you have actually forgotten climate change and the few that advocate to burn in percentages. This is why small fires aren’t extinguished and are let to grow into campaign fires.

      Are our fires completely out, or are they letting them simmer to have another catastrophe under ideal conditions?

      How many tonnes of particulates do you reckon were released from the last Tassie fires? How many people were made ill with the smoke, and will suffer in silence for the rest of their shortened lives? This positive feedback loop adds to climate change. It is a runaway train.

      ‘Black is black, I want my baby back. If I had my way, she’d be here today.’

      When the lot is blackened much of it won’t be coming back, and don’t you think it could be as a result of these European settlers you mention with their pyromaniac tendencies?

      • JDN

        February 19, 2019 at 2:50 pm

        ‘This positive feedback loop adds to climate change. It is a runaway train’.

        I beg to differ in this case. The germination of more eucalypt in fire prone zones will eventually rebound a higher density population storing much more carbon than the pre-fire population. (being one of the most efficient carbon storing plants on the planet).

        “I think you have actually forgotten climate change” How have I forgotten climate change when my first statement acknowledges frequency of germination of fire adapted species, which now live in rain forests that have seen no fire events since the day they were germinated?

        The plant that is the main source of fuel for Tasmanian and Australian fires is the eucalypt, and over millions of years of evolution it has learned to thrive in fire prone conditions.

        Devastating Australian wildfires have been around long before European settlement, and will continue to do so long after we are gone.

        As for ‘campaign fires’, these are a safe way to manage fuel levels in unmanaged forests to help prevent catastrophic events in extreme weather conditions.

        “don’t you think it could be as a result of these European settlers you mention with their pyromaniac tendencies?”

        Dumb statement, these last lot of major fires were all caused by lightning strikes, and even dumber when you forget about Aborigine hunting/forrest management techniques using wildfire dating back 40,000 years.

        • Russell

          February 21, 2019 at 9:35 am

          “I beg to differ in this case. The germination of more eucalypt in fire prone zones will eventually rebound a higher density population storing much more carbon than the pre-fire population. (being one of the most efficient carbon storing plants on the planet).”

          And how does that now stack up with over 70,000 hectares of plantation gone and another 130,000 hectares of vegetation?

          Next you’ll be telling us that grass stores more carbon.

          “Devastating Australian wildfires have been around long before European settlement, and will continue to do so long after we are gone.”

          Absolute rubbish. Provide proof. Wildfires NEVER existed pre-european settlement while Indigenous Australians practised their cool mosaic burns. They NEVER use/used “wildfire”.

          For the last time, read “The Biggest Estate on Earth.”

          And even Angus cattle farmer Kevin Charleston who recently sold his Vale of Belvoir property near Cradle Mountain to the TLC used to cool burn using learned Indigenous techniques. Note “cool burn.” BUT it’s ony done when the weather is right, same as the Indigenous methods. The knowledge of these methods are being passed on by Kevin to the TLC. Pity the rest of the Australian community, especially forestry and government departments, can’t do the same and learn something practical and proved for a change.

          • JDN

            February 21, 2019 at 1:09 pm

            Let’s look at some facts, Russell …

            Fact: Aborigines arrived here around 60 thousand years ago.
            Fact: We know, from geological records, that around 15 million years ago the eucalypt started to become the dominant tree in Australia, and that it has evolved to be fire resistant.
            Fact: lightning has existed since the earth has had atmosphere.

            Are you trying to tell me, that before European settlement and before Aborigines, wildfire simply did not exist?

            Or are you telling me that millions of years of eucalyptus evolution only occurred in the space of 60,000 years?

            The Aborigines learned quickly to adapt to our wildfire prone lands, and with the practice of fuel burns they reduced the frequency of catastrophic fire events. They didn’t use wildfire but rather they learned how to help prevent it with fuel burns.

            https://www.australiangeographic.com.au/news/2011/03/raging-bushfires-started-60-million-years-ago/

          • Jon Sumby

            February 22, 2019 at 1:40 am

            JDN, the term ‘wildfire’ is the American term for what we in Australia call a bushfire. They are the same thing.

            Bushfire is the Australian descriptive word that has been in use since at least the 1830s. When discussing fire in the Australian landscape it is appropriate to use the term ‘bushfire’. It is the essential color of language that keeps the center of our culture distinct.

          • Russell

            March 1, 2019 at 9:28 am

            What did you think I was saying regarding Indigenous mosaic burning? ALL my comments are regarding Indigenous burning and post-european changes.

            There were NO wildfires pre-european invasion because there was a balance in nature. Only humans cause inbalances, but Indigenous people worked with it as opposed to europeans working against it.

            Those Indigenous burns are still in practice in northern Australia where there are much much hotter conditions and more lightning striles than anywhere else on the planet, yet NO WILDFIRES/BUSHFIRES.

  2. Brenda Rosser

    February 12, 2019 at 1:56 am

    Yes, it is a great reprieve to see the fires now over. We might have time to finish building a bunker between now and next summer.

    • Ted Mead

      February 12, 2019 at 11:47 am

      Brenda … I’m not sure where you are in the bush, but a bunker is a practical idea.

      I remember seeing some big old bunkers dug into the ground in the bush in Victoria around the remote old sawmills. These were deep dark and dingy, but probably would have save many lives if wild fires came through.

      The only problem there lies that in the case of an emergency you will have to prepare yourself to share it with all the other creepy-crawlies that either made it a home, or are also in sanctuary from a fire.

      Make sure you have plenty of water in there because if you don’t provide oxygen through a cylinder you will need to be breathing through wet towels or cloth.

      Not to mention the radiant heat if your entrance is facing the wrong way!

    • Jon Sumby

      February 22, 2019 at 4:24 pm

      Brenda, there are national building code standards for those, as I am sure you know.

      The standard is available here as a PDF download:

      https://www.abcb.gov.au/Resources/Publications/Education-Training/Private-Bushfire-Shelters

  3. Patrick Synge

    February 11, 2019 at 4:03 pm

    Thanks, Philip, for summing up so well what many of us have been feeling during this trying period.
    You may be right that it’s too early for recriminations etc but it isn’t too early to be asking questions and trying to learn how we can better manage the risks into the future. The dangers are still with us and we may find ourselves facing them again sooner rather than later. I feel that the sooner we start to formulate and put in place measures to reduce the risks the better off we will be as individuals and a community.

  4. Rob Halton

    February 9, 2019 at 11:22 pm

    As I continually advocate there is by far insufficient regular and expansive fuel reduction, “I repeat for the benefit of a certain reader” fuel reduction as applied to shoulder seasonal spring or autumn burning of vast moorlands and scrub as well as keeping down the fuel loads in drier forests around settlements and town interface to basically reduce the risk of wildfire and allow fire crews an improved margin of safety with suppression tactics.

    Nobody is expecting to fire proof the State but continual improvement to the State,s ability to the initial attack with a rapid response to wildfire, The State Fire Management Council need to ensure that Tasmania has a contracted Erickson Sky Crane helicopter water bomber from the US during our summer season on a similar basis to WA ,SA, Vic, NSW and the ACT has been the case over at least over the past decade.

    Hopefully the heavily uniformed Tas Fire Service chiefs can acknowledge the importance of backup for modern wildfire fighting is aircraft that is adaptable for carrying large volumes (9000litres) releasing water is controlled and targeted.
    Other aircraft whether smaller rotary or larger fixed wing are only supplementary to the operational advantages of the efficiency of the Erickson Sky Crane on the fire ground.

    Remember Increased annual FRB by the fire agencies and an Erickson Sky crane contracted specifically for Tasmania both offer a substantial improvement of the way foward for vegetation management.

    There is no doubt the government will hold a review after the 2018/19 fire season, I look foward to solid recommendations to be implemented and not continual internal bickering among the public and the operations of the Fire Service, however there is a need for improved bush skills training now that Forestry Tasmania’s workforce had been reduced as a part of the Tasmanian Forest Agreement legislation 2013 therefore leaving a wide gap of available experienced fire fighters used to dealing with wildfire in heavily timbered rough terrain wet scherophyll eucalypt forests. Who will implement those measures!

    • Ted Mead

      February 13, 2019 at 9:28 pm

      Robin, the pundit of all things backwards!

      Before you lambast all in sundry regarding the lack of fuel reduction burning in so-called productive forest, areas ask yourself how the Riveaux fire could have been prevented.

      Forestry, or Parks for that matter, never burnt any of the understorey in all those forests in the Huon/Picton area. Some years ago they may have burnt the heath areas upstream, such as Blakes or Harrisons openings, though this, given the fire history of the southwest was probably done by natural means.

      The Riveaux fire was ignited through a lightning strike in a coupe area. Had the region been left as wet forest most likely it would have fizzled out in the damper environs of such.

      Wet forests are the best buffer to slow moving fires.

      Since FT has completely fragmented the wet forest matrix of the entire region there is very little means of fires being suppressed by moist conditions. So essentially, modern day forestry has created an environment that not only encourages fire, but has resulted in a fire time-bomb waiting to manifest .. as it has this summer.

      The only reason the fires didn’t wipe out the entire southeastern extent of the lower Huon region was because the wind speeds didn’t get high on that particularly hot day.

      What eventuated was a severe to extreme fire conditions, which would have been catastrophic if there had been a 50 knot northwesterly blowing.

      So if you are now suggesting the need to reduce fuel loads in these naturally wet forest then you’re proving to be a bigger biased pyro looney than most people see you at present!

  5. Sylvia Merope

    February 9, 2019 at 3:47 pm

    Nice piece of writing Philip.

  6. max

    February 9, 2019 at 8:59 am

    Thanks should be heaped on all those brave unselfish people who fought the fires risking life and limb and their health to save lives property and our state from fires that were threatening us all.
    I disagree with It’s way too early for any blame games or recriminations, or even the wisdom of armchair experts. It is never to early for blame games or recriminations, this luck break in the fire season is just that, a lucky break. 200,000 hectors were burnt but 97% of the state could be back under threat within days.
    Nothing has changed for the rest of the state, the fire risk is still there and a few hot days will put us back in the same danger. If we are lucky and the weather is kind is no surety.
    We now know that fire prevention attempts to fire proof Tasmania were futile, a wast of time and money and put lives and health and risk. There may be some who will claim other wise and it could have been worse, but it is hard to imagine how without the intervention of the weather. In the next fire period god may be slower or not at all.
    The days of waiting to see if a small fire may develop into a major fire are over, instant reaction must be a priority and the way to do it must be provided.

    • Realist

      February 10, 2019 at 9:25 am

      “I disagree with It’s way too early for any blame games or recriminations, or even the wisdom of armchair experts.” So which one do you conform to Max? All three it seems.

      “We now know that fire prevention attempts to fire proof Tasmania were futile”. But that’s in your eyes only. Take your one-eyed green blinkers off Max, and do a little research about fire behaviour in heavy fuels on the forest floor, and ways to reduce them.

      ~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

      Realist, as mentioned once before, to write ” all you need do is press and hold the Shift key, then this key ‘ as you have been doing twice to get ” …

      — Moderator

    • Russell

      February 12, 2019 at 9:40 am

      Hopefully, what has been learned is that we must jump on these fires with whatever it takes right at the beginning, and not criminally wait until they are big enough to get Federal funding.

      • max

        February 12, 2019 at 10:46 am

        Russell, it is good to see that there is some one else who sees the futility of present practices.

        We must jump on these fires with whatever it takes right at the beginning, and not criminally wait until they are big enough to get Federal funding.

        • Clive Stott

          February 14, 2019 at 3:12 am

          Max, there are many people who believe our current fire prevention practices in this state are futile and a waste of money. Cleanairtas can vouch for this.

          It’s only those few who want to be seen getting their faces on TV, such as old burners like Rob Halton, or those making a packet out of our fires that want to talk up pyromania. These are the few that put the mostly volunteer fire fighters’ lives and health at risk. Unfortunately, it appears all they are doing is making noise and smoke. Tasmania deserves better than that.

          If these fires were jumped on and put out straight away, before they became campaign fires aided by back burning to attract Commonwealth funding, then these wonderful people would have been home with their wives and kids much earlier, and the same with all the ones in line of the fires.

          Rob, there is one thing however that we can agree on, and that is the proven use of water-scooping aircraft for extinguishing fires fast. The Canadair 415 would be suitable in Tasmania.

          Your favoured Erickson Sky Crane can also be used as a water scooper: https://fireaviation.com/2019/01/28/helicopter-crashes-into-lake-while-fighting-wildfire-in-australia/

          However, it has been said before that these essential services should not be auctioned off as profit opportunities for private airline companies.

          How many raging bushfires have we had in the last few years? How much damage have we let happen .. deliberately or accidentally?

          Things have to change. I agree it’s more good luck than good management that Tasmania hasn’t been burnt to a cinder.

          We are constantly being told that we are going to have a surplus budget. Good management, eh?

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