Last summer saw some of the worst bushfires in Tasmania for decades. Fire services were overwhelmed and large areas of the World Heritage Area were badly burnt before authorities were able to bring the fires under control.
Fires impacted about 20,100 hectares, or 1.3 per cent, of the Tasmanian Wilderness World Heritage Area. The worst hit areas included Lake Mackenzie (13,822 hectares), Gordon River Road (3,520 hectares) and Maxwell River South (1,389 hectares).
About 2,700 hectares of fire-sensitive areas with vegetation not adapted to recover from bushfire were damaged. (Check here for background into the issue of fire sensitive vegetation).
It was the scale of the damage to the fire sensitive vegetation and the possible influence of climate change on the fires that lead various groups, including Friends of the Earth, to call for inquiries into the fires.
Both the state government and Senate committed to investigations into the fires.
While the inquiry by the Senate is yet to report, an investigation by the Australasian Fire and Emergency Service Authorities Council has now been released.
According to a report by Doug Dingwell in The Examiner, the report “commended firefighters for their actions and found public criticism of them was “largely misplaced”.
According to the Tasmanian Emergency Management Minister Rene Hidding “it also confirms that adequate resources were and are available to fight such fires through existing national agreements,” he said.
“When the situation required external resources they were requested and provided in a timely manner, including significant interstate and international specialist assistance”.
This is a troubling outcome. It is clear that there were insufficient resources available to fire fighters, or a decision was taken to priortise other ‘assets’ which were at risk from the fires rather than the fire sensitive vegetation. We have to hope the report from the Senate inquiry digs a little deeper to work out what happened.
Just to clarify: the work of local and interstate fire fighters was nothing less than heroic. Being concerned about the management of the fires does not imply any negative reflection on the incredible campaign they carried out.
There have already been some interesting developments around the Senate inquiry process. The following items come from the report in The Examiner.
The CSIRO has told the inquiry that Tasmania can’t rely on improved technology alone to fight fires caused by increased dry lightning expected under climate change.
The body warned that fire events like that which devastated parts of the state’s wilderness last summer will become more common (this is supported by a range of climate change scientists).
Further, it says that better technology, including large aircraft, would not be enough to adequately protect sensitive and heritage listed ecosystems such as those found in North-West Tasmania.
“For fires in remote locations, firefighting activity is very often dependent upon aerial suppression as it often takes too long to get ground crews to the fire (if access is at all possible),” the CSIRO said.
“Aerial suppression, however, will not be effective at controlling a fire in many fuel types without support from ground crews.”
The warning was echoed by the National Aerial Firefighting Centre, which said aircraft were efficient and cost-effective in suppressing fires, but usually successful when used with ground firefighters.
“Direct suppression of bushfires by aircraft is rarely effective on its own,” it said.
More than 40 specialised aircraft were sourced and utilised to support Tasmanian bushfire operations during the 2015-2016 season.
The fires were unprecedented for Tasmania in recent times, the Bushfire and Natural Hazards Co-operative Research Centre said.
“Fires started by dry lightning and continuing to burn are rare in this landscape,” it said.
“To see this behaviour is an indication of the level of dryness throughout this region.”
Linking the conditions to climate change was difficult, the centre said.
However University of Tasmania environmental change biology professor David Bowman said climate change-driven fires were a threat to the integrity of Tasmania’s wilderness given its fire-sensitive vegetation.
Ignition patterns were changing with the increase in dry lightning storms since the 1990s, he said.
He called for several measures to improve bushfire responses including:
– better detection of lightning strikes and ignitions using improved lightning sensor networks and aerial reconnaissance;
– better prioritisation of fire-fighting capacity to protect areas with high ecological value; and
– increased numbers of remote area firefighters.
Fire response prescriptions prioritising rare and threatened fire sensitive species were not effectively implemented in last summer’s response, according to the Tasmanian National Parks Association.
“If the outstanding universal values of the TWWHA are to be protected in the long-term, this must be addressed.”
The fires had the potential to obliterate much of the wilderness area’s ancient alpine vegetation, one of the reasons it is a World Heritage Area, it said.
“We were extremely fortunate that their outbreak was followed by a spell of unusually benign weather which saved us from the ‘worst case scenario’ and facilitated efforts to control them.
“The fires were minor compared to what they could have been.”
Parks and Wildlife Services’ firefighting appeared poorly prioritised on the Central Plateau where Pencil Pine trees were damaged close to the fire boundary, the association told the inquiry.
There was also reason to doubt the accuracy of vegetation maps firefighters rely on to prioritise firefighting efforts.
“It is therefore essential that a statewide review of the accuracy of mapping of all fire sensitive natural values is undertaken,” the association said.
The number of ‘very high’ or greater fire danger rating days is expected to increase for northern Tasmania, the CSIRO said.
There was a lack of models showing fire behaviour in areas with fuel types found in Tasmania, it said.
The National Aerial Firefighting Centre said its federal government funding is forecast to diminish, which could lead to a reduction in access to aerial resources.
The final Senate inquiry report on the bushfires is expected in May.