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Fighting fire in the wilderness: learning from Tasmania

Fighting fires in remote wilderness requires a different way of thinking. Matthew Newton

Fighting fire in the wilderness: learning from Tasmania

Fighting fires in remote wilderness requires a different way of thinking. Matthew Newton

The first images of the impact of fire on the Tasmanian Wilderness World Heritage Area were accompanied by claims from Tasmanian Greens Senator Nick McKim that state and federal governments had ignored warnings from climate scientists that this would happen, and that the fire service had been slow to act.

Some 70 fires were started by lightning on January 13 and a further 14 on January 27. They have so far burned around 100,000 hectares, 17,000 of which are in the southwest Tasmanian Wilderness World Heritage Area.

Remote area specialists were sent in early and more flown in from New Zealand. The Tasmanian Fire Service was well prepared, and has stated repeatedly that the government has promised whatever resources they need. However this event suggests more emphasis is required on remote area specialist fire fighting.

That’s the policy change this event might precipitate.

Fires in the wilderness

Fires in wilderness are not just a matter of out of sight, out of mind. Left to burn, they can have a devastating impact on the environment, and indeed on people.

On January 2, 2003, one of us (Andrew) on the 6:40 am Qantas flight from Canberra to Melbourne counted 42 tendrils of smoke curling benignly above the tree canopy in the crystal clear air of the Australian Alps, after overnight lightning strikes on the drought-parched bush. Sixteen days later, in much more severe fire weather, some of those fires had joined up and tore into Canberra, destroying 500 houses, killing 4 people and injuring 490.

On December 1, 2006, lightning started fires in the Victorian Alps that went on to burn for 69 days, the longest running in the state’s history. Rangers in the Victorian Alpine National Park counted dozens of small fires the next morning but as the terrain was inaccessible, they had to wait until either it rained or the fires reached country in which they could fight them. That Great Divide fire went on to burn 1.2 million hectares of mainly national park.

By 2013, 85% of the Australian Alps national parks in Victoria, New South Wales and the Australian Capital Territory had burnt in the space of a decade, seriously compromising the ability of sub alpine forests to regenerate and increasing the likelihood that they will be replaced by more fire tolerant vegetation from lower altitudes.

Bombs away

Both the Canberra and the Great Divide fires may have had different histories if water bombing helicopters and highly-trained and well-equipped helitack crews had been deployed the morning after the lighting strikes. While water bombing can never control an intense wildfire, used early with on-ground follow up from elite firefighting crews, it can stop them before they get to that stage.

Similar arguments have been made by experienced firefighters in the Institute of Foresters of Australia in calling for an independent inquiry into why the fires that caused such devastation to Wye River and Separation Creek on Christmas Day were not tackled more aggressively in more benign conditions, soon after they started from lightning strikes several days earlier.

This is not to be confused with the calls for more large water bombing aircraft, the Very Large Air Tankers, described by environmental historian Stephen Pyne as “primarily political theatre and only secondarily part of fire control”.

And it would take more than money and kit. It would first require a change in policy, a different attitude to land management and a different attitude to risk. With growing evidence of more frequent extreme fire weather, that change is likely to be good insurance.

Politicians of all stripes are very good at finding hundreds of millions of dollars after devastating disasters, but in times of concern over budget deficits, they appear less willing to find tens of millions for prevention and first response measures. The approach we are advocating here is having more nimble (to use a fashionable word) capabilities in aircraft and highly trained personnel, supported by state of the art scanning, sensing and communications capabilities, to be able to hit fires in remote bush very quickly, while they are small and tractable.

Fire-sensitive pencil pines have been killed in the fires. Matthew Newton

Changing environment

We need a major rethink about wild fire, a story that played out over last century in Yellowstone, the world’s first national park. In the first decades of the twentieth century, naturally lit fires were jumped on as soon as they started. With growing environmental awareness in the 1960s and 70s, the policy changed to letting nature takes its course. That might have been fine, all other things being equal. But they weren’t.

Human intervention resulted in wildly fluctuating populations of elk and deer as wolves were removed and the deer and elk ate the country bare to such an extent the beavers up and left. Rivers changed course, cutting into valleys that formerly featured beaver dams, flooded meadows and riparian woodlands of poplar and aspen.

So the deer and elk were shot, and a series of wet years led to a massive build-up of fuel. Drought followed, and then in 1988 a series of wildfires burned 320,000 hectares over three months, 36% of the park.

It took that dramatic event for the attitude to land management and wildfire to be turned on its head. Wolves have been reintroduced, some beavers have returned, and while this story is still unfolding and there will still be wildfires, they are less likely to be as extensive and as damaging.

In Australia, the debate continues on what role land management has played in recent fires.

Time for change

Like the Port Arthur massacre which brought about gun law reform, the black box flight recorder and safety belts, it takes tragedy to bring about major changes in policy and practice. Abstract warnings in the form of models, predictions and forecasts are never enough on their own to produce major shifts in funding or attitudes.

A dramatic event is unfolding in Tasmania’s Central Highlands right now. Maybe it could be handled differently next time.

That depends on two things. First, the value we as a community place on the fire-sensitive vegetation that has survived in Tasmania in the absence of fire since the Cretaceous, over 65 million years ago, a major reason for south west Tasmania being listed on the World Heritage register.

And, second, the federal and state governments accepting their responsibility to protect those values by providing air support, training and resources for remote area fire fighters.

This article was updated on February 2.