Tasmanian bushfire season pushes later due to La Nina, with conditions primed for catastrophe
The shocking image of a fire column, described as “the finger of the beast”, captured during a bushfire in Tasmania over the weekend has served as a reminder the island is in peak fire season — with one expert saying every summer without a catastrophe is a “blessing”.
The danger in Tullah, in Tasmania’s northwest as of Monday afternoon had largely passed, but not before evacuation orders were in place for the township on Saturday.
As of Monday, fires were still burning in several locations.
And while the La Niña conditions affecting Tasmania have made for a later start to the bushfire season, one expert warns the “green drought” — new growth from rain events in a drying-out landscape — was to be ignored at the state’s peril.
A typical bushfire season in Tasmania can run from October through to March, with fire authorities warning “bushfires that are difficult to control can occur at any time during that period”.
The Tullah fires, in an area known as typically being described by a fire ecologist as “wet forest”, could be considered the first major fire event of the 2021/2022 Tasmanian fire season.
David Bowman, professor of pyrogeography and fire science at the University of Tasmania, said the Tullah fire happened in an area “primed to burn”.
“The landscape has been saturated because of La Niña and there has been a lot of growth and it’s green, but underneath in the subsoil it’s dry. The forests are already struggling, particularly in western Tasmania.”
Professor Bowman said the rains brought by La Niña, combined with the “long term drying trend” across the state, meant Tasmania was “one heatwave away from a very dangerous fire situation”.
In a statement, the Bureau of Meteorology confirmed La Niña had played its part as predicted.
“A La Niña event is currently underway and this tends to lead to wetter and more humid conditions for most of south-east Australia in late winter and spring,” the BOM said.
“All of Tasmania apart from just the south-west coast was wetter than average in spring, and significantly so in the south-east.
“However, December was drier than average for all of Tasmania, suggesting that fuels have now started to dry out.”
That was very concerning, according to Professor Bowman, and placed Tasmania on a “deeply worrying trajectory”.
“We’ve had floods associated with the easterly weather, La Nina, which puts water into the landscape, but it is much drier than people realise. We have scary quantities of grass in the landscape,” he said.
Tasmania Fire Service acting deputy chief Jeffrey Harper said the bushfire that threatened Tullah over the weekend “should serve as a reminder for all bushfire-prone communities in Tasmania that while we don’t know exactly where bushfires will occur, we do know they will happen, and everyone needs to be prepared”
He described the bushfire activity Tasmania had seen so far as being “typical of a normal bushfire season where we would expect three to four major bushfires, with drying conditions throughout January”.
“The high-risk period is traditionally late mid-January through to mid-February when the fine fuels dry out and increase the risk of grass fires.
Deputy Chief Harper said Tasmania Fire Service “continually reminds the community of the potential for bushfires over summer and the dangers of complacency”.
Despite Tasmania’s history with bushfires — the worst being the 1967 disaster — some people continued to put themselves in danger, Professor Bowman said.
“The greater Hobart area, this is a very seriously dangerous landscape. Every summer we get through is a blessing, but every summer we get through where we haven’t done the work is a lost opportunity,” he said.
“My concern is we are going to run out of summers and then we are going to see something very, very ugly.”
He pointed to the United States as a lesson for Tasmania, in that throwing money at firefighting appliances was not the single answer.
“They built these massive firefighting armies, with air forces, but climate change is defeating them. They just don’t have that surge capacity.
“Climate change is changing the rules of the way fires are working, seasons are longer, the idea that we can share resources from the northern hemisphere, that’s out the window because the fire seasons are merging.
“We are seeing fires in northern California, in environments that don’t normally burn, in winter, because of the drying out of the landscape. The logs are dried out, the moss beds are dried out, the creeks are low.”
Professor Bowman said along with spending on modern means of firefighting, being better prepared ahead of emergencies was critical.
“There is no question rapid attack aircraft, better modelling, surveillance and satellites, are all part of the toolbox, but we know from the American experience that you can have the biggest firefighting armies in the world and climate change will still defeat them,” he said.
“We have to do two things well; we have to have good firefighting capabilities, but also build that capacity with local communities, to prepare their properties and settlements, to prepare land around their homes and to manage fuels. This is just what we have to do now.”
Professor Bowman said while burning off and fuel reduction were being done, there needed to be more — a lot more.
He said the “good messages” by the fire services and other agencies about prevention and preparation could still be “misunderstood by people”, or they don’t have the means to act on them.
“Once you start accumulating multiple vulnerabilities in the landscape, plus you’ve got people in blissful denial, because it hasn’t happened to them, they don’t know what happened in 1967, they are prepared to take these incredible risks. When you bolt all of that together you end up with this very dangerous setting,” he said.
“I’m not trying to cry wolf, but the tempo is ramping up and we have to find a means, politically and with policy.