As Tasmania Burns it is Time to Prepare and Act

Over 50 Fires are currently burning uncontrollably around Tasmania. Over the holiday weekend 23-27 January, a statewide fire ban will be declared.  High winds and hot temperatures on Friday may create potentially dangerous blow-up conditions.  For residents of Tasmania who live in bushfire-prone areas, it is important to regularly check the Tasmania Fire Service Alerts List. Smoke pollution in the southern towns of Geeveston, Cygnet, and Judbury is over 20 times greater than the level at which health warnings are issued.

The director of the Fire Centre, Professor David Bowman, interviewed on ABC Radio National Monday morning, said that “[So far] we’ve really come out of this pretty well…there hasn’t been loss of life, significant loss of property or biological values. [But this week we’re looking at] a suspense-filled situation, lots of things could happen.” On Friday, fire conditions will worsen significantly, with temperatures above 30°C, 25-35 km/hr winds, and relative humidity below 15%.  The towns of Liawanee and Miena, in the Central Plateau, along with the Tahune Airwalk in the southern forests, are currently under threat. So far, most of the vegetation that has been burned is fire-adapted and in the wilderness. Human settlements, and Tasmania’s iconic Gondwanan vegetation, remain largely unaffected. However, the situation is on a precipice. Come the weekend, life, property, valuable old growth and regrowth forests in the south, along with Tasmania’s iconic rainforest ecosystems, could be at risk. The fire weather on Friday and into the holiday weekend could change our understanding of bushfire impacts paralleling or eclipsing the 1967 bushfire disaster.

Smoke from the wildfires settles over Hobart and Glenorchy

 

Fire crews, including many volunteers, from the Tasmania Fire Service and Parks and Wildlife should be commended for their tireless work around the clock. Crews from New South Wales and New Zealand have arrived to assist, and the combined firefighting has likely kept things from getting much worse. However, resources are already stretched thin, and many of the fires are burning in rugged, remote Tasmanian wilderness in which firefighting with ground crews is incredibly difficult.

These fires bear the fingerprints of climate change. Facing unseasonably warm and dry weather for mid-January, Southwest Tasmania was hit by a dry-lightning storm that started many of these fires. Such lightning storms are expected to become more common during peak summer dryness periods.  This combination of drought and dry lightning is an example of what is globally being referred to as the new abnormal.

At the Fire Centre, we believe strongly that local communities must be involved in developing solutions for the fire problem. The situation in the United States has taught us that an over-reliance on fire suppression without sufficient resources for fuels management is an unsustainable approach.  Preventative, targeted fuel management practices are essential. In Australia, this is primarily achieved through planned burning. Our research has found that planned burning must be used as a strategic, targeted approach to protect assets, whether man-made or natural, of value to the community.  In this regard, the Tasmania Fire Service has led the way, developing the nation’s first risk-reduction approach to planned burning.  However, there must be a public discussion about what values in Tasmania should be prioritised for protecting and about how to strike a balance in investing in firefighting and fuels management as outlined in Professor Bowman’s opinion piece prior to the second burst of lightning fires.

Additionally, alternatives to planned burning need to be developed, with close involvement from the local community.  In March the Fire Centre will be hosting a public forum on green fire breaks and mechanical fuel reduction treatments, in order to engage the Hobart community in the fuel reduction planning process.  This will be followed up by a public survey on bushfire preparedness and the acceptability of different fuel treatment strategies, along with a project quantifying the effect of these treatments on fire risk. This project is among the many projects at the Fire Centre that are currently connecting Tasmanian wildfire researchers, managers, and local communities.  These projects include:

  • Developing fire-risk situational awareness and air-quality apps
  • Case-studies of the many severe fires to have impacted Tasmania in the past decade
  • A collaboration with the Tasmanian Aboriginal Centre to study the effect of different planned burning practices on fire behaviour and herbivore activity
  • A collaboration with DPIPWE to study the ecological effects of fire on Tasmania’s iconic pencil pine ecosystems.

More details of each of these projects will be forthcoming on the website soon.

In the meantime, all residents of Tasmania should constantly monitor the local fire-alert situation, and we recommend downloading the AirRater app to stay up to date and receive advice on air pollution in your area and how it affects your health.

James Furlaud
Communications Coordinator — Fire Centre Research Hub
PhD Student
University of Tasmania

David Bowman
Director — Fire Centre Research Hub
Professor of Pyrogeography and Fire Science
University of Tasmania

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