The future is on fire in Tasmania. Over the past few weeks and possibly even now as you read this, tomes of natural history are burning down.
Texts by Tom Wolff
The Tasmanian author Richard Flanagan once said that “the measure of this world is all the things not made by man.” He was speaking about the wild lands of Tasmania. Having spent many days working as a guide in these areas (and exploring on my days off) I reckon I know what he’s talking about.
I moved to Tasmania a handful of years ago having never before set foot on this small island at the bottom of the world. I’d never heard Australia referred to as ‘the mainland’ or scoffed down sausage rolls with tomato relish instead of tomato sauce. The love affair began quickly and continues to this day although Tassie and I are currently in a long-distance relationship of sorts. I left a part of my heart in Tasmania, not only for the people I met there but also for the places I visited. These places, far enough away to shake off the modern world, allowed me to peer into the past; the ancient Gondwanan landscapes and ecosystems allowed me a breathtaking window into the history of our planet. Over the past few weeks and possibly even now as you read this, tomes of natural history are burning down. What remains is a land blackened and burnt. Nature will rebuild itself but those forests will never return. In the current climate, it’s almost impossible.
FORESTS AND FIRE IN TASMANIA
Fire has been a part of the Australian landscape for millennia. We know now that its power was harnessed with great skill over thousands of years by Aboriginal people across the continent for hunting and land management. Anyone who’s bushwalked in Tasmania probably knows (and possibly despises) the ubiquitous buttongrass in moorland areas. These very moorlands that came into existence through the ritual burning of the land by Tasmanian Aboriginal people over thousands of years. We Australians know that many ecosystems and forest types across the country require fire to regenerate because the heat allows seed pods to open and foster germination of new seeds. Eucalypts shed copious amounts of bark to encourage regular, low intensity burns. But a fact that is often forgotten in Australia is that not all of our ecosystems thrive on fire. And more specifically, the type of fires we have seen recently are not low intensity or regular – they are fires that burn out of control at extremely high intensities, because the ritual burning practices carried out for thousands of years were interrupted. European arrival on the island displaced many Tasmanian Aboriginal people from their country and in most cases disrupted the delicate balance that had existed for many thousands of years.
“Its ancient forests contain rare conifers like the King Billy, Pencil and Huon – species of pine that have survived through a painstakingly slow process of forest secession to witness the earth for countless generations of human life.”
Tasmania’s environment is a little different from the rest of Australia for a whole lot of reasons. It sits at much lower latitudes than the rest of Australia, cops most of its weather from the southwest – straight off the Southern Ocean – which means a lot of rain. To give you an idea, Strahan on Tassie’s west coast averages 240 days of rain a year. So that gives us an idea as to why areas in the Southwest wilderness of Tasmania might not be fire-ready. Its ancient forests contain rare conifers like the King Billy, Pencil and Huon – species of pine that have survived through a painstakingly slow process of forest secession to witness the earth for countless generations of human life. Once on a well known trail while reading a bushwalkers’ log book in one of the Parks’ huts, I discovered that some of the Huon pines nearby had been accurately dated to two and a half thousand years old – imagine the wisdom contained within that timber; the things that tree has witnessed as civilisations rose and fell across the globe.
At a basic level, forest secession is a pretty simple concept. After a fire, initial growth in Australia begins with dry sclerophyll (typically eucalypt) forests. (Schlerophyll stems from Greek and basically just means ‘hard leaf’). Eucalyptus can usually live for around two to three hundred years before they die. During the couple of centuries before that happens, in many parts of Tasmania this forest usually transitions to something we call a wet sclerophyll forest. In this stage of secession, the eucalypts dominate the tallest layer, commonly known as the ‘canopy’. Below the canopy new species of trees are struggling for life and light as they pioneer bits of ground – in Tasmania, this means species like leatherwood, sassafras, myrtle beech and a few species of conifers like the celery-top, king billy and pencil pines.
“The last few fire seasons in Tasmania have shown that the pockets of cool temperate rainforest are drying out, and the results have been nothing short of devastating.”
The final stage of secession is a transition phase where the old eucalypts start to die while the rainforest species continue upward and begin to dominate the canopy layer. This usually takes around 300 to 400 years. In Tasmania, this stage of the forest is known as cool temperate rainforest and these forests currently cover about ten per cent of Tasmania’s land surface. In cool temperate rainforests, the understory and ground layers are often carpeted with moss, lichen and all types of colourful fungi, which helps to retain moisture and keeps everything pretty wet – it’s called rainforest for a reason, right? As you gain altitude, cool temperate rainforest usually gives way to the hardy yet fragile sub-alpine and alpine ecosystems with their beautiful alpine gardens and proudly standing pandani. Areas that Tasmanian conservation ecologist Jamie Kirkpatrick describes as “like the vision of a Japanese garden made more complex, and developed in paradise, in amongst this gothic scenery”. These ecosystems are also not conditioned to deal with fire.
NATURAL OR UNNATURAL?
In the last five years there has been a series of massive fires in the Tasmanian Wilderness World Heritage area. The cause of most of the fires in Tasmania has been attributed to dry lightning, so you could argue that they are in fact ‘natural’. The counterargument to this stance suggests these areas are usually so moist and wet that dry lightning would have no effect – no fire would be able to take hold. The last few fire seasons in Tasmania have shown that the pockets of cool temperate rainforest are drying out, and the results have been nothing short of devastating.
Andy Szollosi is a Hungarian transplant who now calls Tassie home. He’s a good friend of mine and he has an intimate knowledge of these areas that few possess. Andy’s spent countless hours guiding people through these landscapes, as well as taking plenty of photos along the way. He was paddling on Lake Pedder in Tasmania’s southwest on the day the fires started. When interviewed on a previous occasion about the future of fire in Tasmania, Andy had this to say:
“If we are serious about saving our endemic natural heritage; our temperate rainforests and our alpine moorlands, we need to do two things; mitigate climate change by reducing our emissions of greenhouse gases globally and adapt our fire fighting strategies locally to be able to better respond to wildfires.”
Of course, this can only take place with a gradual change in our culture. The values of our society must shift from the anthropocentric towards the holistic. We must accept that humanity is only one constituent of an infinitely complex natural system that we really cannot do without. If our way of life destroys our own habitat, we will perish alongside with it.
A CHANGING CLIMATE
I think most humans can agree that the climate is changing. Whether that is triggered by human impact or not is in many ways irrelevant. We need to learn how to cope with extreme change at a rate never before seen in human history. In recent years I undertook a 9000 kilometre bike journey from Alaska to Mexico. As I travelled south the common theme seemed to be, ‘Things are changing around here, and fast.’ Everywhere I go, people I speak to tell me this same thing. It comes up in everyday conversations with strangers as we are befuddled by unfamiliar weather patterns and strange weather systems. As a surfer I witness these changes most clearly. Swell patterns aren’t the same as they were ten years ago. Winds aren’t the same either. While technology is more advanced than it was twenty years ago, our weather forecasting and predictions rely on patterns that are – in many places – no longer relevant. The truth is that some patterns are ceasing to exist.
“The potential to combine this wisdom with modern technologies gifts us a tool that could harness incredible power in adapting to our changing climate.”
To me it seems that the key to managing the changing climate lies in a creating a new type of symbiotic relationship, much like the ones that already exist in our natural world. We have an incredible and enduring wealth of Indigenous knowledge and inherent understanding of our lands that still exists, in spite of what has been lost. The potential to combine this wisdom with modern technologies gifts us a tool that could harness incredible power in adapting to our changing climate. In the case of Tasmania this could mean researching traditional fire practices used in Tasmania for thousands of years and considering how modern technologies like satellite mapping, helicopters and other modern machinery could be used to effectively manage areas that are at high risk of catastrophic fires like the ones we have seen recently. The insight we could gain from exploring Dreaming stories may hold answers we never knew we had.
At a recent UN summit at the end of 2018, David Attenborough spoke to world leaders from across the planet. He left them with a simple request:
“The world’s people have spoken. Time is running out. They want you, the decision-makers, to act now. Leaders of the world, you must lead. The continuation of civilisations and the natural world upon which we depend is in your hands.”
There’s tangible emotion in that statement from a man who’s been observing the natural world for almost a century. He knows there’s no time to play games. Whether we like it or not, politics dictates how we address large scale environmental issues. Heckle the people in power. Tell them you’re not happy with the way things are. Inform Will Hodgman – the current Tasmanian Premier – that we prefer to prioritise our planet above profit. Time is our greatest commodity and its slipping through our fingers more quickly than we’d like it to. All the small things add up. If we make our voices loud enough, they’re left with no choice but to listen.