A Tasmania Fire Service image of a bushfire behind Arthur River township in the Australian state of Tasmania, on 28 January 2016. Photo: Warren Frey / Agence France-Presse

By David Bowman
28 January 2016

(The Conversation) – More than 72,000 hectares of western Tasmania have been burned by a cluster of bushfires, most of them ignited by a spectacular dry lightning storm that crossed the island on January 13.

The geographic scale of the fires can be seen on the Tasmanian Fire Service website. These fires pose an enormous, ongoing challenge to the fire service, with little immediate prospect of a speedy resolution to this crisis given the absence of soaking rains in the foreseeable future.

Thankfully there has been no loss of life and comparatively limited damage to property because most fires are in remote areas. But there is mounting concern about the environmental impacts of the fires to the Tasmanian World Heritage Wilderness, especially fires in the Walls of Jerusalem National Park and Cradle Mountain-Lake Saint Clair National Park. Bushwalking tracks, such as the popular Overland Track, have been closed until at least next week. […]

The fires are extremely destructive for two main reasons.

First, the fires are threatening vegetation that is unique to Tasmania, including iconic alpine species such as the Pencil Pine and cushion plants, as well as temperate rainforests.

Second, the fires are burning up large areas of organic soils upon which the unique Tasmanian vegetation depends. It is extremely unlikely burnt areas with the endemic alpine flora will ever fully recover given the slow growth of these species and the increased risk of subsequent fires given the change to more flammable vegetation and the slow accumulation of peat soils, which takes thousands of years.

Past fires have resulted in a permanent switch from the unique Tasmanian alpine vegetation to more fire-tolerant vegetation.

Destructive fires in the alpine zone are known to have occurred in western Tasmania in the past 10,000 years, yet these fires were extremely infrequent until European colonisation. Due to the reckless use of fire by prospectors, pastoralists, recreationalists and arsonists there has been a drastic contraction of much of Tasmania’s unique vegetation.

Since the declaration of the World Heritage Area, fire has been carefully regulated with a prohibition of campfires, which has sharply reduced the number of bushfires. Unfortunately, over the last decade there have been an increasing number of lightning storms that have ignited fires.

For instance, in 2013 the Giblin River fire that burned more than 45,000 ha was set off by a lightning storm, one of the largest fires in Tasmania in living memory.

The current fire season is shaping up to be truly extraordinary because of the sheer number of fires set by lightning, their duration, and erratic and destructive behaviour that has surprised many seasoned fire fighters. The root cause of the has been the record-breaking dry spring and the largely rain-free and consistently warm summer, which has left fuels and peat soils bone dry. […]

More fundamentally, the loss of vegetation that takes thousands of years to recover from disturbance is a warning shot that climate change has the potential to result in bushfires that will impact food security, water quality and critical infrastructure.

In other words, like the Pencil Pines, our ecological niche will be threatened. [more]

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

Bushfires threaten a structure in Tasmania, 21 January 2016. Photo: AAP

SYDNEY, 31 January 2016 (AFP-JIJI) – World Heritage-listed forests whose origins predate the age of the dinosaurs are being destroyed by raging Australian bush fires, with conservationists increasingly fearful they could be lost forever.

Firefighters in Tasmania — an island state south of the mainland known for its cooler temperatures — have been battling bush fires for 18 days, with 95,000 hectares (234,750 acres) of land burned so far, authorities said Friday.

While no properties have been destroyed and no one hurt in the infernos — which are so numerous that firefighters from across Australia and New Zealand have been flown in to help — parts of western Tasmania’s famed wilderness have been destroyed by the flames.

“The fires in western Tasmania are occurring in basically an ecosystem which is a remnant from the geological past, so they are of immense significance scientifically,” said David Bowman, professor of environmental change biology at the University of Tasmania. “These systems were once more widespread and indeed grew on Antarctica billions of years ago, so they are living fossils. … They go back to well before the age of the dinosaurs; they are a tangible connection to Gondwana.”

Gondwana was a land mass that included present-day Africa, South America, and Australia and formed the southern part of an ancient supercontinent called Pangaea.

One of the last expanses of temperate wilderness in the world, the Tasmanian Wilderness was entered into the World Heritage list for its significant natural and cultural values in 1982 and covers nearly 20 percent of the island, or 1.4 million hectares (3.5 million acres).

It includes the Cradle Mountain-Lake St. Clair National Park and the Walls of Jerusalem National Park, home to popular bush-walking tracks.

With the Tasmania Fire Service (TFS) battling more than 70 blazes and access to remote areas difficult, a spokesman said the agency was not able to gauge how much forest had been burned, although most of the fires are in the west and encompass vast swaths of protected land.

Species under threat include the southern beech forests, also known as nothofagus, the pencil pine — a distant relative of American redwoods — and the king billy pine, Bowman said.

Some species are only found in Tasmania, leading to concerns that if the ancient, slow-growing trees are obliterated by the blazes, they could take many years to regrow, if at all.

Bowman warned that despite the firefighting efforts, only soaking rain could end the emergency as the soil of western Tasmania was drying and turning into so-called “brown coals” that burn tree roots.

Light rain now falling on the island has failed to douse the flames, with lightning strikes sparking more blazes, the TFS told the Australian Broadcasting Corp.

Lightning strikes were “insignificant sources of ignition” just a few decades ago, Bowman said. But three years ago, a major bush fire that destroyed more than 100 homes was also in part sparked by lightning.

Bowman said that from his assessment, the recent blazes in Tasmania, along with a trend of rising temperatures in Australia and across the world, reflected an increase in extreme fire situations that pointed to climate change. [more]

Tasmanian bush fires raze ancient World Heritage forests

Map of bushfires in Tasmania, 2 February 2016. Graphic: Tasmania Fire Service

Hobart, 2 February 2016 (AAP) – Almost two per cent of Tasmania’s World Heritage Wilderness Area has been destroyed by bushfire, authorities say.

Crews are still playing catch-up to contain scores of blazes which were started more than a fortnight ago by dry lightning strikes, with Tasmania Fire Service deputy chief Jeremy Smith on Monday saying new outbreaks are still being found.

But special attention is being given to the state’s protected areas as weather conditions ease.

“We have been able to map a number of these areas around the state and we’ve calculated at present it’s approximately 1.9 per cent of the world heritage area,” Mr Smith said.

Clearing cloud cover meant aircraft have been able to conduct flyovers to direct specialist ground crews to investigate hot spots.

“As we move through the fire ground we’re making sure that the fire hasn’t got the opportunity to run,” Mr Smith added.

The heritage-listed area covers some 1.5 million hectares which equals about a fifth of the island state.

“It has been a shame that a number of areas within the state have been damaged by fire, however it’s only a small percentage in some of the pristine areas,” Mr Smith said.

“Obviously we want to make sure that any further damage is limited and that’s what we’re actively pursuing.” [more]

Bushfires take toll on Tassie wilderness



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