Every time I drive up the hill from Harrietville to Mt Hotham, I feel a strange mix of joy and sadness. Its always good to get back into the mountains. But those burnt out alpine ash forests break my heart.
People will often say ‘fire has always been part of the landscape’. True. But that misses the point that fire intensity and frequency is already increasing as we lurch into the climate change influenced future. In my lifetime it has already transformed many of the landscapes I know and love best. What will the coming decades bring?
In Victoria, the frequency of large fires (greater than 100,000 hectares) has grown significantly over the past century.
- 19th century – 2 mega fires
- first half of 20th Century – 4 mega fires
- 2nd half of 20th century – 7 mega fires
- In the first 15 years of the 21st century – 6 mega fires
This is in spite of massive advances in fire fighting technology.
The Upper Ovens area experienced three major fires in just a decade. This is impacting on the forests, and possibly pushing large areas into a different vegetation pattern. Some scientists have suggested that, without human intervention, the alpine ash forests of this and other valleys around the alps will disappear (human intervention meaning aerial seeding).
It is hard not to see that the landscape is changing before our eyes. Being at any of the alpine resorts like Dinner Plain, Falls Creek and Hotham, which are built into the surrounding forests, you can feel the risk of fire all through summer. People watch the emergency app on their phones and dry lightning storms make you nervous. In winter, snow often comes later (who hasn’t skied through endless drizzle and rain during early July?) and snow depth is in decline (and has been since 1957). Emblematic species like the Mountain Pygmy Possum are already struggling to survive (despite some excellent work by resorts and other land managers).
Sure, ski resorts can focus on ‘green season’ activity to maintain their economic viability, but the feeling of the place is changing. No amount of denial can hide that fact. For my part, I intend to keep working as hard (and as smart) as I can to ensure Victoria does its part in radically reducing its greenhouse gas emissions. We need all hands on deck and the logical places to start are the large carbon emitters (in Victoria and NSW this means the coal fired power stations that produce most of our electricity at present. We need to shut them down and transition to 100% renewables and storage asap). But based on the amount of carbon we have put into the atmosphere over the last two centuries, change in climate, and hence vegetation, will continue. I hope our kids can recognise the world that we grew up in.