As the long debate continues about whether a developer should be allowed to build a cable car up the face of kunanyi/Mt Wellington, Bernard Lloyd reminds us about the primary threat to the mountain, which is posed by wildfire. Regular fires on the mountain have huge implications for the proposal to build a cable car.

In terms of combustibility, the forest on the mountain’s eastern face carries the greatest fuel load. The cable car is planned to be built up the eastern face.


The Mountain’s “Primary Hazard”

When kunanyi/Mt Wellington’s Management Plan is read today in the eerie afterglow of this summer’s fires its pages reek of smoke. The word “bushfire”, like a rain of embers, is spotted more than 140 times. “Bushfire”, the Plan says, “is the largest threat to the Park”. This written in 2015.

The Plan’s brief history of fire on the mountain notes, blithely, “the Park has experienced several large bushfires”. That section can now be revised, not in the light of the 2018 fires (which have not touched the mountain), but the light of historian Maria Grist’s meticulously chronicled study of bushfires on kunyani (2019). As well as the conflagrations of 1851, 1897, 1914, 1920, 1940 and 1967, Grist documents over 60 other significant mountain fires. Her chilling conclusion is that over the past two centuries “nearly every year at least one bushfire burned on the mountain”.

This has catastrophic implications for the proposal to build a cable car all the way up the mountain.

The natural cause of this frequent ravaging is in the bush itself, but the frequency of fires haunting the mountain is locational: the mountain not only rises out of a dense, wet eucalyptus forest, but over its shoulder are “extensive areas of dry country to its north and north west: the directions from which most fires emanate in Tasmania.” The management plan is most concerned with fire sensitivity. The peat bogs on the plateau behind the Pinnacle and the delicate alpine flora have the highest fire sensitivity and are thus at most risk; however, for combustibility, the forest upon the mountain’s eastern face carries the greatest fuel load. The cable car is planned to be built up the eastern face.

The natural proclivity of the bush is inflamed by the ignition culprits: usually male. The mountain’s proximity to Hobart has made it a magnet to arsonists. “In the recent past, almost all bushfires affecting the Park have been caused by humans,” says the Park Plan. That is unlikely to change if the past is any guide. Grist cites numerous news reports of fire-lighters (known as “excursionists”—typically larrikin boys) negligently or deliberately setting the mountain afire year after year throughout the 19th and early 20th centuries. The earliest report is dated 1828, when an “enterprising party of Young Gentlemen” climbed “this splendid work of nature” to deliberately turn its Pinnacle into a pyre. That “enterprise” incinerated the summit and by the next evening its fire had moved “from one end of the ridge to the other.”

Presciently, the Plan—composed in 2014—also suggests that “bushfires started by lightning would be a major threat to the Park if they occur in inaccessible areas” and though “there are no records of any recent bushfire caused by lightning in the Park, this could change in the future, as evidenced in the Tasmanian Wilderness World Heritage Area (WHA).” Indeed. The past does record just such evidence. Grist found sparodic references to dry lightning fires as far back as 1840. In 2019 dry lightening set off over 70 fires in the WHA and senior ranger described to me running for his life across a buttongrass plain hearing bolt after bolt exploding in the mounds around him.

Today, Hobart’s Fire Protection Plan (2017) uses BRAM software (Bushfire Risk Assessment Model) to map and assess the likelihood and consequences of bushfires. Over almost half of the cableway path, the BRAM risk is “Extreme” and the consequence level “Catastrophic”. So great is the threat, bushfire is categorised as the “Primary Hazard” to the Park. It is the sharpest prong of a terrible trifecta: fire, flood and landslide. The one sometimes causing the next. But the greatest of these is fire. Bushfire, the Park plan concludes, is “the largest threat to the Park both in the short term and into the future”.

The mountain has been terrifically scarred by fire in the past but worse may be to come. Over the course of the 21st next century the management plan envisages climate change exacerbating the Primary Risk of fire—but even a clockwork continuation of the past makes catastrophe certain.

The Park’s managers therefore devote their attention to all strategies that might reduce, mitigate or manage, though not eliminate, fire. Elimination is not only impossible, but undesirable. The eastern face needs to burn: “fire can benefit the dry forest plant communities on the lower slopes of the Park”. Controlled burns are a key middle-ground tactic. Of course… controlled burns do sometimes get away and how they would be managed underneath the cableway is unclear.

Fires also burn buildings. The Management Plan notes that “much of the Parks fire-susceptible historic infrastructure has been burnt.” Respect the Mountain suggests that this statement should be read to the cableway company’s shareholders, and asks: “Will the Tourism industry, state government and investors now stop and think about the consequences of creating “Tassie’s next big thing in tourism” on what fire ecologist Professor David Bowman calls ‘a biological volcano’?”

What is the cable car proponent’s response to all this? Publicly, the company has said nothing about The Primary Hazard. They say they will not operate during “extreme fire danger”, and if a “sudden, unexpected and catastrophic fire” broke out, they have a water tank at the Base Station and, on top of the mountain (where there is no water) the Pinnacle Centre has “a fire-proof shell”.

It would be wrongful to suggest that tourists face being burnt alive in a skytram turned into a spit, but fires across the face of kunanyi are not extreme weather events nor are they new and the Pinnacle Centre would be at the top of the pyre, in the very mouth of the volcano; its inaccessible twin towers would be the lightening rods of their own incineration, and with the base station surrounded by dense eucalyptus forest… the cable car enterprise is doomed.

This was originally published on this site, which is focused on the cable car proposal.