Lightning strikes lit well over 100 fires across Tasmania in mid January. As of Feb 3, more than 50 are still burning, and there have been significant impacts on townships, especially in the north west and north of the state.

Check here for details on the status of the fires, why they are so destructive, and whether there are links to climate change.

Scroll down for daily updates on the fires.

Why are these fires so bad?

Fires in Tasmania’s ancient forests are a warning for all of us

Tasmania’s recent bushfires are a clear indication of climate change, writes Professor David Bowman.

The information below was compiled by Dave Reynolds based on materials from Nick Monk and Nicole Anderson, and explains why the risk of fire in the sub alpine areas in TAS is so significant.

“I want to explain why the current fires are so devastating to the ecology down here, which is not fire adapted.

Tasmanian endemic alpine vegetation does not, and never has, used fire to regenerate. Nor rainforest for that matter. So the pencil pines, King Billy pines, deciduous beech etc are lost forever. All are extremely slow growing (we have pencil pines in excess of 1000 years old). The fact we have these growing still means that no fire has touched those areas for at least that sort of period of time. Also, the rainforests do not use fire to regenerate. Heath, Buttongrass and eucalyptus – yes they do.

Unfortunately it seems many are misled by the deliberate “regeneration burns” of Forestry as being something akin to a natural event. It is not. They log transitional rainforest then burn it to encourage the faster growing, but fire loving, eucalypts for a faster rotation time.

The rainforest species do not regenerate after fire, return to transitional rainforests and myrtle dominated forests takes hundreds of fire free years to establish. I might add that up here in the northwest, the fires have been the biggest & most destructive where there is forestry activity (logging/”regen”/plantations/regrowth etc). Check the satellite pics on the TFS maps. Pretty compelling. By comparison, fires from lightning strikes in areas without much disturbance stayed small, with one exception on the Pieman River where elevated heathland was affected”.

These statements are backed up by comments made in an article that appeared in The Guardian written by Karl Mathiesen.

Unlike Australia’s eucalyptus forests, which use fire to regenerate, these plants have not evolved to live within the natural cycle of conflagration and renewal. If burned, they die.

To avoid this fate, they grow high up on the central plateau where it is too wet for the flames to take hold. But a desiccating spring and summer has turned even the wettest rainforest dells and high-altitude bogs into tinder. Last week a huge and uncharacteristically dry electrical storm flashed its way across the state, igniting the land.

While these events have occurred in the past, says David Bowman, a professor of environmental change biology at the University of Tasmania, they were extremely rare, happening perhaps once in a millennium.

“It’s killing trees that are over 1,000 years old; it’s burning up soil that takes over 1,000 years to accumulate,” he says.

If this truly were a once-in-1,000-year event, says Bowman, then to be alive when it occurs is like “winning TattsLotto” for a fire scientist. But we no longer live in the same world.

“We are in a new place,” he says. “We just have to accept that we’ve crossed a threshold, I suspect. This is what climate change looks like.”

Tasmania’s tragedy touches all. An opinion piece from Wild magazine.

Is climate change playing a role in these fires?

It appears so: because of the long term warming and drying that has occurred in Tasmania in recent decades and because of the increase in dry lightning strikes.

1/ Drier weather/ stronger fire season

According to the Climate Council, these fires have been so devastating because they occur in the context of:

“a long-term drying trend, record-breaking dry spring and a dry, hot summer – driven in large part by climate change – played a significant role in increasing the susceptibility of the forests to fire”.

“A record-breaking dry spring and a dry, warm summer has left fuels and peat soils bone dry.

Unusual warmth marked the last quarter of 2015. October was the warmest on record for Australia for both maximum and minimum temperatures, with the monthly mean temperature anomaly the largest on record for any month of the year. November mean temperatures were the equal second-warmest on record and spring as a whole was the second-warmest on record for Australia. October–December was also the warmest on record for both maximum and minimum temperatures. Numerous December records were broken in Tasmania for daily maximum temperature. Exceptionally high minimum temperatures on the night of 19–20 December were even more significant, with record-high minimum temperatures for December observed over large parts of Tasmania.

Below average winter–spring rainfall and a very warm start to October created conditions conducive to dangerous spring fire weather across the southeast. Extreme fire danger was declared over much of Tasmania during the early October heatwave; Forest Fire Danger Index (FFDI) values at a number of sites were near record-high for so early in the season. Furthermore, annual rainfall was below average for Tasmania, indicative of a two-decade drying trend likely influenced by climate change.

This assessment has been shared by David Bowman, a professor of environmental change biology from the University of Tasmania. “This is what climate change looks like.”

Michael Grose from the CSIRO, who conducted a major study into the future climate of Tasmania said the dry conditions that led to the fires were also expected to be made more likely as a result of climate change. “Hotter temperatures, reduced rainfall in key seasons [and] worse fire weather, are all consistent with what is projected with climate change, particularly under a high-emission scenario.”

2/ Increased dry lightning strikes

Climate scientist Professor Will Steffen says that extreme fire weather risk in Tasmania has increased over the last 30 years due to the influence of climate change. Although the climate of western Tasmania has not changed very much, as yet, as a result of global warming, the incidence of dry lightning strikes has increased markedly from last century to the present. According to David Lindenmayer, a professor of ecology and conservation biology at the Australian National University, lightning was expected to increase under climate modelling. This has been the case in recent decades in Tasmania, so much so that a fire risk assessment of the World Heritage Area (WHA) warned that lightning fires should no longer be viewed as “natural” because of the influence of climate change. It concluded that lightning fires were now the main threat to the survival of the WHA.

Updates on the fires

UPDATE FEB 8

The Overland Track has been re opened.

UPDATE FEB 5

Dozens of fires were still burning inside the world heritage forests in Tasmania, according to the Tasmanian Fire Service.

“They could continue to burn for 10 or 20 more days and were likely to be made worse by dry and warm conditions that are forecast as a high-pressure system moves through Tasmania”.

On the positive side, the Premier has announced there will be an inquiry into the fires.

UPDATE FEB 3

The ABC is reporting that:

Two teams of scientists and bushfire experts are due to start investigating the extent of damage fires have wrought on Tasmania’s Wilderness World Heritage Area (WWHA) on Wednesday.

The specialist crews will first focus on the fire grounds near Cradle Mountain and Lake Mackenzie in the Central Plateau.

In those regions fire has scorched unique alpine flora that do not regenerate.

Tasmania Fire Service deputy chief officer Gavin Freeman said the teams would be partly made of experts from interstate, who are from a variety of fields.

There are about 50 fires are burning out of control in Tasmania’s west and north.

The fire service expects that number to significantly reduce in the coming week.

Additionally, it has been reported that:

The Tasmanian Aboriginal Centre holds grave concerns for the survival of cultural heritage sites in the area.

The centre’s Heather Sculthorpe believes rock art and middens could have been destroyed in the blazes.

UPDATE FEB 1

Fires continue on the central plateau, although crews continue to work to contain them and fire over the weekend helped in some areas. A series of photos by renowned photographer Rob Blakers from the Lake Mackenzie fire have been published on the Mercury website.

These show the level of impact on ground cover and pencil pine groves.

central plateau Rob B Jan 2016

UPDATE Jan 31

From the ABC:

central plateauWilderness photographer and bushwalker Dan Broun has just returned from the Central Plateau.

Vision he filmed shows how the fires have raced through the area, which is home to unique alpine flora including pencil pines, king billy pines and cushion plants, some more than 1,000 years old.

Mr Broun walked four hours into the bushfire affected areas on Saturday.

“The scene is complete and utter devastation. There is kilometres of burnt ground, everything is dead,” he said.

He said small pockets of areas protected by rock escaped the fire.

The Lake Mackenzie fires have been burning in the Central Plateau for 11 days. About 11,000 hectares of WHA have been incinerated.

 

UPDATE JAN 30

The ABC reports that

Improved weather conditions are allowing fire crews to work on containing large bushfires in several parts of Tasmania.

Advice-level warnings remain in place for several communities affected by bushfires, including the Lake MacKenzie area, Cradle Valley, Lorinna and Gordon River Road in the south-west.

 

UPDATE Jan 29

TAS Fire Service report:

Fire continues to burn across multiple areas around the Mersey Valley, Lemonthyme Valley and Lake Mackenzie area.  There are 3 fires burning in this area that are creating large volumes of smoke, Lake MacKenzie, February Plains and Lake Bill. Flame heights are 1m- 2m on alpine plateau. Benign conditions elsewhere along active edges except as slope and wind direction align, which is resulting in increases of fire intensity.

The western edge of the Lake MacKenzie fire is continuing to move west towards the Cradle Mountain/Cradle Valley area and represents the greatest concern. Current control lines along Lemonthyme Road to the Lemonthyme Power Station have held. Aerial reconnaissance of the fire edge was completed at 1200hrs 28 January to identify potential threatened assets as well as provide an update of the fire spread. The southern end of the Mersey Complex fire has now enveloped the northern end of Lake Rowallan.  Remote Area crews working on Lake Bill fire today.

There are a few showers in the area at present which are expected to ease this evening but they are not expected to suppress fire activity. The February Plains fire continues to move south towards Mt Oakley. This edge is being monitored during the day.

The Overland Track was closed on Wednesday, 27 January 2016 and will remain closed until it is safe to re-open. For information on track closures please visit http://www.parks.tas.gov.au

 

UPDATE JAN 28

The Fire Service says:

“Fire continues to burn across multiple areas around the Cradle Mountain and Lake Mackenzie area.

There are about four fires burning in this area that are creating large volumes of smoke, which is blanketing the north of the state.”

These are:

  • The Lake Mackenzie fire (19,224 ha) which has also burnt significant areas in the Mersey Valley
  • The Lake Bill fire (burning up out of the Mersey Valley into the Walls of Jerusalem NP)
  • February Plains (which has moved into the Cradle Mountain NP)

A fire on the Dove River (Cradle Mountain) is now under control but the Overland track remains closed.

Details here.

 

UPDATE JAN 27

The Lake McKenzie fire, which is also burning in the Upper Mersey towards the Cradle Mountain area is now 19,224 ha.

The Tasmanian Fire Service reports that:

Fire continues to burn across multiple areas around the Cradle Mountain and Lake Mackenzie area.

There are approximately five fires burning in this area that are creating large volumes of smoke which is blanketing the north of the state and causing ash to fall on towns in the area, including the Lake Mackenzie area.

The Overland Track was closed on Wednesday, 27 January 2016 and will remain closed until it is safe to re-open. For information on track closures please visit http://www.parks.tas.gov.au

For information on current road closures, please visit the Tasmania Police website: http://www.police.tas.gov.au/community-alerts/

 

UPDATE JAN 26

There are reports that NSW remote crews were working in the February Plains area yesterday. We understand that this fire is of greatest concern among the ones burning on the Central Plateau. The Lake Bill and Lake Mackenzie are ‘looking much better today’ with fewer hotspots.

UPDATE 25 January 2016

[below: the ‘Lake Bill’ fire is of great concern. As of 25/1/16, it has already burnt at least 1,000 ha of the Walls of Jerusalem NP].Lake Bill fire

There are more than 50 fires still burning.

Specialist crews from interstate will arrive at the fire-ground in remote locations including the Lake Mackenzie area in the north of the WHA today. The Mercury reports that they are being sent to “wilderness areas in the Central Highlands, South West National Park, Cradle Mountain and the West Coast”.

Cooler conditions should help in the fire fighting efforts.

However, Ian Bounds from the Tasmania Fire Service (TFS) said on the ABC that crews could not become complacent, despite cooler conditions this week.

“Whilst it’s cooler, a number of these fires are of such size, that they’ve still got momentum and will continue to burn and the fresh winds will make it quite challenging on the fire ground.”

Over the weekend there was an effort by conservationists to get the state and federal governments to commit more resources to the remote area fires, including allocation of more fire fighting aircraft.

Authorities warn that no significant rain is forecast until Autumn “at the earliest”.

 

JANUARY 22

According to the ABC, more than 42,000 hectares have been burnt in the past 10 days. The focus of fire fighting has been, understandably, on protecting people and built assets like homes and businesses. However, there are grave fears that with so many fires not yet under control, remote area fires are have not been tackled on any major scale.

Representatives from the Tasmanian Fire Service said that the nature of the fires – many fires starting across huge sections of the state – made the response difficult. TFS said that traditionally the Service is used to fighting large fires in the east and south east, and the large number of fires in the west and north west had overwhelmed their resources.

Pencil Pine grove near Turrana Bluff, Central Plateau
Pencil Pine grove near Turrana Bluff, Central Plateau

Deputy Fire Chief Jeremy Smith said on Jan 22 that the focus has now shifted from defence to attacking the fires. It is hoped that with reinforcements arriving from interstate, including up to 100 remote-area firefighting specialists, the remote fires will be able to be brought under control.

The current fires in World Heritage and other conservation areas have been described as the ‘worst crisis in decades’. This is because so much high elevation vegetation is either already burnt or at immediate risk. Many key species, such as the iconic Pencil Pine, are very sensitive to fires and can take centuries to fully recover.

satellite image of the fires
satellite image of the fires

As noted by Geoff Law in a piece in The Guardian by Michael Slezak:

“As we speak there are areas burning inside the world heritage area, on the central plateau, where there are ancient species of native pine, which are very slow-growing and up to 1,000 years old,” Law said. “Some of those are being killed as we speak.”

For many Australian forests, fire was a natural part of the ecology. But that was not the case for all of the areas now being threatened in Tasmania, Law said. “My concern is for the areas of rainforest and high-altitude vegetation in heavily glaciated [areas] where fire is not and has not been part of the ecology for millions and millions of years.”

Law said pencil pines and fagus, Australia’s only winter-deciduous tree, are now in the path of large fires moving into the world heritage area. “My concern is for a stunningly beautiful but vulnerable fragile and irreplaceable vegetation that occur in those high-altitude areas,” Law said.

Pencil Pine, Central Plateau near Lake MacKenzie
Pencil Pine, Central Plateau near Lake MacKenzie

Because of the serious nature of the threat, national resources should be brought in to help fight fires in or near the world heritage areas, he said.

“There are around 50 fires around the world heritage area or other parts of the wilderness. Many are in remote places and not being fought. They are getting bigger all the time. And there may not be sufficient rain to put them out for months.”

A Wilderness Society spokesman, Vica Bayley, applauded the Tasmanian fire service for their efforts and agreed that lives and property should be their first priortity. But more resources were needed to protect vulnerable forests too, he said.

“Across western Tasmania, iconic alpine and rainforest areas that are incredibly fire-sensitive have been burnt or are threatened by the fires that are burning across the landscape,” Bayley said.

Near Blue Peaks, Central Plateau
Near Blue Peaks, Central Plateau

“Incredible tourism assets such as the Walls of Jerusalem and remote mountain ranges featuring fire-sensitive species such as cushion plant, pencil pine and deciduous beech are also threatened by current fire events and the dire season ahead. Recovery from fire events in these ecosystems would take centuries, if not millennia.”

NB: The Parks and Wildlife Service (PWS) has banned campfires at high risk campgrounds but state fire manager Paul Black said gas stoves would be allowed.

The PWS has closed hiking tracks in the Walls of Jerusalem National Park and the central plateau conservation area while four wheel drive tracks in the Arthur-Pieman conservation area are also closed.

There are also closures in the Southwest National Park while Cradle Mountain is open to hikers but there are some restrictions in place.

Mr Black said bushwalkers were advised to check the PWS website before setting out and take responsibility for their personal safety.