By Michael Scott Hill
On January 13, 2016, a storm passing over the mountains of Tasmania hammered the Australian state with over a hundred lightning strikes occurring in a three- to four-hour period. In their wake over eighty small wildfires began to spread across sections of this island’s unique landscapes. Some of these fires extinguished themselves naturally, while others took hold and grew to the size of thousands of hectares. These Tasmania fires were relatively unique — due to the normal high levels of rainfall this island experiences annually, fire events like this for Tasmania are a rarity and as such, deserve a closer look.
Tasmania lies 40 degrees south of the equator and is separated from the southeastern coast of the Australian mainland by the Bass Straight. It is an island resting in the Tasman Sea which is often viewed as a pristine wilderness dotted with small laid-back towns whose economy relies heavily on tourism. The Tasmanian weather is renowned for changing several times in a day. The dry continent of Antarctica is the next major landfall to the south and as such, Tasmania can experience cold winters. The island receives the second highest annual levels of rainfalls for the nation. Seasonal heavy rainfall usually keeps wildfires here from being much of a concern across this landscape’s unique vegetation types, and many plants and animals have evolved uniquely to coexist in this environment overcountless generations.
In the world’s most southern regions, fossil evidence has been found that suggests temperate rainforests were once widespread in Australia, Antarctica, South America and New Zealand around 45 million years ago. As the global climate warmed and became drier, these forests retreated back to small pockets primarily today left in Tasmania and southeastern Australia. Cool temperate rainforests and relic vegetation species still exist here in remoter locations that date back to the time when Australia was part of the super-continent of Gondwana. These relics are called the Antarctic flora, and they include the various native pines, cushion plants, the southern beech (Nothofagus) and the deciduous beech.
The pockets of relic vegetation species have survived independently in the high country without evolving with fire and are badly impacted when fires do occur. Tasmania however is not a pristine island that evolved without any wildfire as portrayed (often emotionally) by some. For thousands of years native Australian Aboriginals called Tasmania their home, and across countless generations they carried out their hunter and gather lifestyles of which using fire as a method of farming played a key element.
The Tasmanian Aboriginals deeply valued fire, so much so in fact that during their bloody conquest by Europeans, the smoke from the fires that their remnant groups felt necessary to keep burning is what was used to hunt them down. Rain and the wet cool environment are what kept Tasmania’s wildfire risks in check and confined to their flames to lower areas of the island which allowed the Antarctic relic vegetations species elsewhere to thrive.
Change is believed to be in the air, however, as a growing number of scientists are pointing their fingers at Tasmania’s ecosystems as a new example of global climate change in action once again. David Bowman, a professor of environmental change biology at 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.” The climate scientist Will Steffen has also linked these Tasmanian fires to a new episode of climate change by stating that over the last 30 years extreme fire weather in Tasmania has increased. This increase isn’t believed to be a climate shift as yet. But David Lindenmayer, a professor at Australian National University in ecology and conservation biology, has published climate modeling estimates that could represent itself with an increase in dry lightning strikes.
This rise in dry lightning activity has already been observed in recent decades in Tasmania, and this summer (January 2016) the dry lightning combined with the unusual drought experienced this summer, has created a situation where cool rainforest sections of the island, which under normal conditions serve as a barrier to stop wildfire growth, here have dried out to allow their vegetation to carry fires across them up into the highly sensitive Antarctic relic species pockets protected as World Heritage Areas (WHA). Lightning fires started by down strikes occurred during the event in the WHAs too, and they, together with the other large wildfires produced during that January 2016 storm, grew to become a serious threat to the survival of these ancient relics growing in their final holdout pocket areas.
In January when these fires spread out from the places where super-heated lightning bolts had touched down to ignite them off, they collided with vegetation already stressed by drought conditions and their flames carried easily and swiftly. Some of the fires spread out to consume more than others, and in all, they would finally burn over 100,000 hectares of vegetation, of which 14,000 hectares would include the relic species pockets of the World Heritage Areas (WHA).
The effected locations of Tasmania were large areas of the Tarkine, the Mersey Valley and February Plains – within the Walls of Jerusalem and Cradle Mountain – Lake St Clair National Parks, and the Central Plateau. Southwest National Park also experienced the flames as well, and Tasmania’s world-famous Overland Track was closed for more than a week.
This small state’s firefighting resources were not accustomed to dealing with such an overwhelming scale of wildfires, in relation to their number of personnel and resources, and they concentrated their efforts first on protecting Tasmania’s urban interface structures and infrastructure. Their focus during the early phases of the fires was in protecting life and property triage, while other larger wildfires ran across large areas of the more mountainous and forested remote northwest and up onto the island’s high central plateau regions. Milder weather in the second week of the event, as usual, finally slowed the progression of many fires. To gain the upper hand with these improved conditions, an Australian Federal interstate firefighting response was organized to go in and “black line,” or secure the countless kilometers of the individual fires. This tactic was deployed to prevent the continuation of fire spreading into more hectares of drought stressed lands, especially in the WHA, and limiting the risk of new future fire runs.
In Australia the majority of the firefighting orientation is towards truck-based urban interface fire efforts. However “across the ditch,” as Aussies and Kiwis call the Pacific Ocean between them, many states and New Zealand now have specialist-based teams who have been trained to go into the forests to meet wildfires beyond the safety of their fire hoses. These crews have been named Remote Area Teams, and while a number of them are paid staff, large numbers of these crews serve as unpaid volunteers motivated to protect their communities. During the Federal response to these fires, both types of these crews along with the New Zealanders, were requested to assist Tasmania; as well as were other fire specialist in logistics and aviation. Tasmania’s fire support of 2016 then became an interstate disaster assistance response effort, where fellow Australians and New Zealanders came down and across to help out their mates.
Matesmanship, or stepping up to looking out for each other, is an important part of both Australian and New Zealand culture. Under the cap of a Federal response during this event across Tasmania, matesmanship was in action on all levels. After the initial dangerous runs of the fires had subsided, the priority shifted to work together to save what was left of the island’s highly valued WHA unique vegetation pockets.
The Remote Area Teams assisting were trained to work with helicopters to be deployed into remote locations either by winch, hover exit or landing. On the ground these crews use hand tools, leaf blowers and chainsaws to construct fireline or “blackline” and mop up with pumps and fire hose or by directing in water drops from helicopter buckets. These Tasmanian fires became the perfect opportunity for these teams to successfully showcase their unique bush skills while completing their important missions.
As a member of one of these specialized crews, the assignment for my team was to drive up into the dirt roads of the island’s mountainous sub-alpine zone, and from there, leave our vehicles behind on the roadside and enter the thick forest to climb up into high slopes of broken-slippery shale on our hunt to extinguish any remaining hot spots. We passed along our way, 100 year old burnt out ferns, thickets of blackened brush, mazes of fallen dead and down vegetation, all scattered out beneath massive moss-covered and towering Blue (also known as Swamp) Gum trees, some as wide as a small car.
Careful as we went, not to trip or slip, while we crossed over the unstable slide areas. Slides which in places, had been left greatly destabilized by flames, that earlier had consumed the blankets of light green moss that had long bound their fields of broken pieces together.
Up along the ridgelines far above those slopes, where we also searched, we found ourselves working our way through more heavy jackpotted fuel loadings of partially burnt old logging debris while seeking out and destroying other smoking hot areas left near the fire’s burnt edge which, if remaining untended, could cause the fire to restart and run again.
The high plateaus of the WHAs, however, offered much different experiences to other crews assigned to fly in by helicopters up there. These crews found themselves running pumps and using hoses and hand tools — all in a struggle to dig out and flood with water the pockets of drought-dried and burning peat, hidden beneath burnt black open relic grasslands, all the while being careful to keep from stepping on and killing anymore of the fragile colonies of highly endangered cushion plants, lucky enough to have escaped fire’s flames and heat.
Out on the firelines of Tasmania we discovered that if you were lucky it was possible to see small kangaroos or wallabies hopping around, or even to get a glimpse of Tasmania’s famous small Tasmania Devil scavengers going about their business, or spiny backed echidnas, adapted to this island’s cooler environments by transforming large numbers of their spikes into hairs to provide warmth. You won’t be able to see the equally famous Tasmanian Tiger here anymore (though recently one has been reported spotted on the mainland in Gippsland Victoria, believed to be a descendant of a pair released long ago before its species was considered to have become extinct).
Unique birds were also to be seen out on the fire ground, such as wedge tail eagles soaring above with their mighty wingspans or the colorful True, Swift and Orange-bellied parrots chirping around in the limbs over your head. In the black on the ground we also spotted tiny green Forty-Spotted Pardalotes which look like small finches, popping around in the dust in search of insects which may have survived the fires.
Snakes, however, are what firefighters had to keep an eye out for, and Tasmania is home to three native species; each of which carries venom dangerous to humans, as do several local species of spiders and scorpions. Tasmania’s snake species share many of the same variations of patterns and colors, but they can be identified by the structures of their heads. The Tiger snake is by far the most famous species and is usually considered timid, normally retreating at the approach of a human. They are a beautiful, highly toxic, and interesting snake, which despite its name, may be found without any striping. Firefighters were instructed if they were bitten by any of the Tasmanian snakes, their best chance of survival was to bandage the bitten extremity using a compression bandage up to the lymph node, immobilize the limb, stay still and call for help. If the snake did inject toxin during its bite, then likely only the timely delivery of anti-venom, the compression bandage and immobilization would be of help to the firefighter. As such, in Australia you’ll find that snakes are respected like wildfires, and life is often adapted, where possible, to exist with both.
What’s the predicted outcome for those fragile Tasmania vegetations pockets once the flames from this event have cooled and the normal rains have returned to their mountain slopes again? A government inquest is already being called for by environmentalist and politicians to find blame. More money will then be provided in the future for local firefighting efforts, some restructuring will take place, and in the end, perhaps more firefighters will be trained up to work remotely to extinguish future fires that future lightning storms will bring to their island’s shores.
I am proud to say that I took part in these efforts and was very impressed to have witnessed first hand such passion displayed. Many people chipped in to work together, especially on a voluntary basis, to help protect Tasmania’s unique environment as mates, and for the Australian wilderness. This fairly complex Interstate emergency response in return offers Tasmania a fighting chance on the ground to help preserve its very special, important, and rare wilderness areas.
[Editor’s Note: On March 9, the premier of Tasmania, Will Hodgman, announced a major research and analysis project regarding fires in Tasmania. As the release states,
The Tasmanian Government will invest in a research project to examine the impact of climate change on the wilderness, and strengthen our fire-fighting techniques in our Wilderness areas.
Tasmania has faced one of the worst fire seasons in recent years. The response from our emergency services was immediate and the magnitude was without precedent, and they deserve our praise.
Not a single life or property was lost, and only about 1.3 per cent of our Wilderness World Heritage Area was affected. This is despite more than 300 fires, more than 120,000 hectares burned and a record 15 total fire ban days, five more than any previous year.
While we can never fire-proof Tasmania, given wildfires are a natural part of the Australian environment, we can work to mitigate the risks, just as our $28.5 million fuel-reduction program is doing.
Michael Scott Hill manages fire and aviation with a global perspective from a home base in Virginia in the United States.