Indigenous fire rangers could save Tasmania’s wilderness
By Dr. Michael Shawn Fletcher
School of Geography
University of Melbourne
The hype over the fire crisis and the role that climate change has played masks an awkward truth: the myth of wilderness is as much a threat as climate change when it comes to large and uncontrollable wildfires.
Like the Kakadu National Park World Heritage Area, the Tasmanian Wilderness World Heritage Area (TWWHA) is not a wilderness, it is a cultural landscape created and maintained by people through millennia of fire management.
It is time to put a Kakadu-style cultural burning ranger program on the table as a realistic management tool in the TWWHA for mitigating the effects of climate-driven catastrophic wildfire.
The arrival of the first people to Tasmania and their systematic application of fire set in motion a chain of events that, contrary to the wilderness myth, gave us the human-made landscape we see today: a landscape in which flammable vegetation like buttongrass moorland dominates, not rainforest. Prior to this crucial point in Tasmania’s natural history, some time before 40,000 years ago, rainforest did dominate the region during periods in which the climate was similar to today’s. This pre-human landscape approaches what could be termed a wilderness in the true sense of that word: a pristine sanctuary untouched by the taint of humanity.
That is not the TWWHA of today. We have inherited a landscape managed by people using fire. While knowledge of the exact burning regimes of Tasmanian Aborigines was largely eradicated under a brutal and inhumane colonial regime, it is clear from the volumes of notes taken by early explorers and surveyors that the landscape (including the TWWHA) was skilfully managed by Aboriginal people using fire. Paradoxically, failure to acknowledge the sophisticated practices of Aboriginal communities is a present-day threat to the same iconic ecosystems that have inspired the wilderness myth.
The standard-bearers of these ecosystems are the ancient and long-lived pine trees (some older than 2000 years) that feature in images of wilderness broadcast around the world to lure visitors to this remarkable region. Ultra-fire sensitive species, such as King Billy pine and pencil pine, exist in tiny islands in a sea of ultra-flammable vegetation; the boundaries between these plants and their associated ecosystems are often sharp. This is a largely self-reinforcing balance governed by natural and human forces, persisting for millennia under Aboriginal management. Climate, topography and the varying flammability of different vegetation govern what burns and where fire spreads, while humans and, more recently lightning, determine when and where fires ignite.
While the latest fires were largely business as usual with respect to what burnt and where (only 0.001 per cent of the burn area contained King Billy pine and other similar vegetation), the fires were spatially large. Large fires are becoming more common. The Giblin River fires in 2013, Lake Mackenzie and Arthur-Pieman fires in 2016, and the Gell River and Central Plateau fires this year were all huge, dry lightning-strike fires. Worryingly, dry lightning is occurring more frequently, and projections based on climate change scenarios indicate a further increase in the lightning-strike fires.
Why are the fires getting bigger? A large part of the answer lies in fuel loads. The longer you leave flammable vegetation unburnt, the hotter, faster, taller and larger the fires will be. This is particularly so in buttongrass, in which there is a rapid increase in fuel loads in the first 20 years after a fire that results in hotter and faster fires. Under certain conditions, such as the warmer and drier fire seasons we are experiencing, such fires become hot enough to override the natural barriers to fire spread, resulting in fires that also affect less fire-resilient vegetation.
Indeed, catastrophic wildfires that have destroyed fire-sensitive vegetation have occurred every 40 to 50 years since the 1830s following the large-scale removal of Aboriginal people from their lands and practices. This happened in the 1890s and again in the 1930s, when about 50 per cent of King Billy and pencil pine forests were lost to fire. The toll of the 1850s fires is unknown but is likely to have been significant.
We see the legacy of these fires in the landscape today. White timber tombstones that are reminiscent of the D-day memorial in Normandy. These fires follow the cycle of slow fuel build-up in unmanaged vegetation, followed by hot and fast fires that breach the natural defences of these forests.
In short, present-day fires in Tasmania are a product of management failure. A look at the fire history of the TWWHA and surrounding areas reveals only a tiny portion of this landscape has been intentionally burned in recent decades. This management failure is not from a lack of knowledge, because much of the science I am drawing on was conducted by insightful and intelligent people in the government agencies who manage these systems. The failure results from a lack of resources to conduct the scale of fire management required to manage the vast and remote expanses of the TWWHA and surrounds, and from the perpetuation of the wilderness myth that stems from a failure of society to acknowledge the true nature and origin of this landscape and the ingenuity of its traditional owners.
What can be done? We have a perfect test-case at the opposite end of the continent – Kakadu and Arnhem Land (the Top End). Like the TWWHA, fire-sensitive pine trees (native cypress) exist in tiny islands in a sea of flammable savanna. Massive wildfires following the forced removal of Aboriginal people have caused irrevocable ecological damage. Re-introduction of traditional fire management by a largely boots-on-the-ground pedestrian cultural fire management regime, through government-sponsored ranger programs, has radically altered the state of large catastrophic wildfires, which are much less frequent. Further, the move back on country has had a marked effect on the physical and psychological health of indigenous people in the Top End. A win for all.
At last count, there were more than 23,000 Aboriginal and/or Torres Strait Islanders in Tasmania. Many still have a connection to place and, as elsewhere in Australia, they are among the most discriminated against, disadvantaged and under-employed. Here lies a potential to create ranger programs for training and mentoring people in land management, aimed at reconnecting people to place by reintroducing indigenous-style burning regime.
The time for change is now. Before we experience another, and potentially the last, catastrophic wildfire in the few remaining iconic rainforests in Tasmania. It should be noted that this notion was proposed, yet largely ignored, nearly 20 years ago by those same insightful and intelligent government employees in charge of managing this landscape today.
Dr Michael-Shawn Fletcher is a biogeographer and fire ecologist at the University of Melbourne, and a descendant of the Wiradjuri.
This Op-Ed first appeared in The Mercury 19 February 2019.