Smoke rises from bushfires near Cradle Mountain in Tasmania, 19 January 2016. Photo: Tony Stodart

By Shreya Dasgupta
10 February 2016

(mongabay.com) – On January 13, dry lightning strikes sparked off a series of fires in northwest Tasmania that spread quickly. So far, the fires have ravaged more than 107,000 hectares of land, according to the Tasmanian Fire Service.

As of Monday, there were 81 active fires across the state, of which, 26 are currently either uncontained or uncontrolled. Nearly a month after the fires started, many are still ablaze. One problem is that most active fires are located in remote, rugged areas of Tasmania. Moreover, some fires are burning in deep peat soil, Ted Lefroy, Director of the Centre for Environment at University of Tasmania, told Mongabay.

The trouble with peat fires — or fires that result from the burning of partially decomposed plant matter in wetlands — is that these tend to keep smoldering underground without becoming outwardly apparent on the surface. This makes it difficult for firefighters to detect and control the fires. The peat fires do become visible occasionally, Lefroy said, when the temperatures rise further and wind speeds increase.

To manage the active fires, over 180 remote area specialists from Tasmania Fire Service, Tasmania Parks and Wildlife Service, Australian mainland and New Zealand have been operating throughout the state. Given the enormous scale of the fires, firefighters have been focusing most of their efforts on human life and property such as farmlands, and critical infrastructure like major hydro-electric transmission lines.

While specialists are striving hard to control the fires, Tasmania’s woes are far from being over. The Tasmania Fire Service has planned four more weeks of firefighting operations, Regional Fire Chief Jeremy Smith told reporters. “There’s several fires that have the potential [to move],” he said. “We’re putting sufficient resources on those fires to ensure that they don’t move. And also looking at other options so if the fire weather eventuates – those days where it is warm and windy, those days that Tasmania notoriously gets in February – that we have plans in place.”

The current fires have burned down around 11,000 hectares of the state’s United Nations World Heritage wilderness area. And this has conservationists worried.

One reason for their worry is that some of the burned area in the World Heritage region is home to unique vegetation found only in Tasmania. These include cushion plants, and conifers like the King Billy pine (Athrotaxis selaginoides) and the Pencil Pine (Athrotaxis cupressoides). Much of this vegetation is ancient, representing a time when Australia (and Tasmania) were still a part of Gondwana some 170-180 million years ago. These alpine trees — many over 1,000 years — are extremely sensitive to fire. […]

Scientists say that conditions for fire in Tasmania were ripe. 2015 had one of the strongest El Niño events on record, and a record-warm Indian Ocean, which helped shape very hot and dry conditions in Tasmania last year. Rainfall was below average across the state, and a record low in western Tasmania, according to Australian Government’s Bureau of Meteorology. Last year was also Tasmania’s second hottest year on record, behind 1914.

These extremely hot and dry conditions — attributed to changing climate — have “left fuels and peat soils bone dry,” writes David Bowman, a Professor at the University of Tasmania.

“A critical feature of the current Tasmanian fires is the role of lightning storms – climate is not only creating the precursor weather conditions for the fires, it is also providing the storms that ignite them,” Bowman adds. [more]

Why is Tasmania burning, and why are scientists worried?

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