On January the 13th, several dry lighting strikes sparked around one hundred bushfires around Tasmania. The summer had been unseasonably hot and dry, and the landscape had lacked indigenous fire management regimes for two centuries. In its place, land clearing, exotic species, and the establishment of fire-prone monocultures created the context for a wildfire catastrophe which did not even require catastrophic fire conditions to cause destruction on a massive scale. In the Tarkine, 85,000 hectares were burnt from what originally manifested as only four or five original spotfires. Where these fires started should have rung warning bells very early on – within dry buttongrass – one of the world’s most flammable plants- and in adjacent regrowth eucalyptus forests. The area used to have massive stands of naturally fire-resistant Southern Hemisphere rainforest – but this had been cleared for farming and in clearfell forestry operations. The regular and seasonal cold burns by the first people of this land had long been abandoned – their purpose was to keep migration paths open, and to procure food after the fire from the sprouting bracken and browsing game.
This bounty supported a population of around 5000 people in the state before the arrival of Europeans. Now, a population of 8000 people inhabits this Northwest corner of the island alone. The pressure on the landscape has inadvertently led to the decimation of the natural fire resistant rainforest buffer. Climate change in now being experienced as unusually dry and hot summers. All this compounded and colluded to cause a scenario of disaster that was predictable, and quite possibly preventable, if earlier intervention had occurred. A flammable landscape in proximity to a rural agricultural population condemned the region to over a month of toxic bushfire smoke that endangered the health of people, livestock, pets and wildlife alike. It battered commerce, tourism, and primary industry. Lives were put at risk as residents were compelled to face the flames to protect their shacks. The cost to the local community is quite possibly unquantifiable as some health effects such as mental instability or cancer may take years yet to manifest. The cost to the landscape – while it is showing signs of regeneration and renewal – is a transformation into a more fire-prone version of its former self. Countless animals have died including invaluable individuals of the endangered Tasmanian Devil, rare and threatened species such as Quolls, Bandicoots, Broad Toothed Rats, as many other birds, wombats, wallabies and arboreal mammals. The area that burned contained immense biodiversity.
In contrast, over 10 spotfires started at the same time within the deep Gondwanan remnant rainforest, with a legacy reaching back around 800 000 years. None of these fires burnt more than a hectare or two. Are we going to learn the lessons from this? Can Nature provide a message strong enough to move those who wield power without knowing its consequences? I was utterly astounded when in a coincidence of time and composition, there was a collusion of sky and land in which Nature for a moment formed an unnaturally powerful, sinister form. This is what happens when we undervalue our environment.
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