Tasmania’s wilderness fires are an environmental disaster, a foreshadowing of climate change conditions – and a point of political contention. By John Martinkus.

Politicising the Tasmanian bushfires

Fire devastation around Lake Mackenzie, in Tasmania’s Central Plateau.
Fire devastation around Lake Mackenzie, in Tasmania’s Central Plateau.

As you drive through the countryside, there are fewer and fewer houses. There is the last service station and the last pub. There is an abandoned railroad running by the roadside. In the pub, they say, “You’re not a greenie, are you?” You drive on through a dark corridor of ancient towering trees. Past the last town of Maydena the mobile drops out; so does the ABC on the car radio. Then the true Tasmanian wilderness begins, a blacktop road built to service the now virtually abandoned Hydro town of Strathgordon, giving access to a stunning landscape at the end of the world.

If you look at a map you will see one road branching off into the south-west wilderness area. It was a road built to service the controversial dams that flooded the original Lake Pedder. It was done to provide hydro-electricity from the still impressive dams built in the wilderness. Controversial even back then. The opposition to those dams was the start of the environmental movement that was to become the Australian Greens. Today you cannot drive down that road past a certain point. It is blocked because of the danger of bushfires that have been burning in the area since January. Open only to the few brave and resolute firefighters battling the blazes in this remote and inaccessible area. Undermanned and under-resourced, they continue to fight these fires in ancient forests that, scientists say, have not seen fires for hundreds of years, or in some cases ever.

The area is notoriously damp. On numerous camping trips I have spent miserable rainy nights unable to light a fire from the soaked wood during a downpour, even in summer. It is thick, dense bush interspersed with areas of swampy button grass. The sense of isolation and natural grandeur has a strange appeal, with views down to the wild endless ridges of the uninhabited south-west. Beyond them there is nothing until Antarctica.

There is something really special about the place. It was the tranquillity, otherworldliness and isolation that compelled Lithuanian-Australian refugee Olegas Truchanas to venture into this wilderness and document it with his famous photography that lent weight to the original campaign to save the wilderness in 1972. Similarly it was his protégé, German-born Australian Peter Dombrovskis, who participated in and documented the campaign to save the Franklin River in the early 1980s.

The wilderness seemed to resonate with people who had come from the bombed-out and devastated European cities of World War II. Many of them had been sent into the wilderness to build the dams as a gateway to Australian citizenship. Jobs Australians wouldn’t take. I felt it, too. It was the peace and tranquillity after coming from covering the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. It was strangely appropriate that in one rain-soaked pre-dawn morning, as I tried to get my car out of a bog, some tourist with a thick European accent – could have been German, could have been Swiss – turned up out of nowhere and said, “Do you need some assistance, ja?” Covered in mud, cold and wet, and exhausted from my efforts, I said yes of course, and together we got the car out. The point is, it is a special place valued by many people from around the world for all sorts of different reasons and for the past month a large proportion of it has been on fire.

This is where politics comes into the story and the old pro-forestry and conservationist divide that has dominated Tasmanian politics for decades comes into play. At time of press there were 48 active fires, as listed on the Tasmania Fire Service website. Many have been going since January 13 and are in remote areas, apparently started by the same dry lightning storm that swept the island. As well as dense bush with towering trees and almost impenetrable undergrowth, Tasmania’s west features open areas of button grass, thick clumps of which tend to grow on areas of waterlogged peat. As the ground dries in a hotter than usual season the peat becomes flammable. It is now this peat that is burning – the ground itself – and the fires produce massive amounts of smoke and carbon and are very hard to extinguish. The smoke has at times drifted all the way to Melbourne and has been evident in the Tasmanian capital, Hobart, as well as the other major population centres of Launceston and Burnie.

The political divide is basically this: the Greens accuse the Liberal government in Tasmania of not caring if the forest burns; the Liberals angrily respond that the fires are extremely difficult to combat and they are doing all they can.

Interstate fire crews are now in place, five members of whom were injured in a truck rollover this week. The Australian military has also assisted with logistics to facilitate the deployment of firefighters to the affected areas by flying in a massive C-17 transport full of portable accommodation. The Greens respond that it is too little too late and reflects a cavalier attitude on behalf of the state government to a situation that has allowed the fires to continue for so long, especially in World Heritage-listed areas.

John Holloway, a spokesman for the Tasmanian Fire Service, says there are more than 600 firefighters, of whom well over half are volunteers, combating the fires in the state. They have come from all states of Australia, as well as from New Zealand. Some are working in the remote area teams that are dropped in by helicopter to tackle blazes where there is no road access. He said they are dealing with more than 900 kilometres of fire edge, and that at the peak of the fires 123,000 hectares burnt across the state. “It is unprecedented,” he told me. “I personally have not seen this. This is one of the most significant fire events the state has seen.”

“This is bigger than us,” Professor David Bowman, a fire ecologist from the University of Tasmania, told the ABC. “This is what climate change looks like – this is what scientists have been telling people. This is system collapse.”

Federal Greens leader Richard Di Natale had this to say after viewing the fires last week: “It was devastating to see parts of Tasmania’s precious wilderness burnt, some of which will never recover. The loss of pencil pines and cushion plants, which have taken millions of years to evolve and aren’t adapted to fire, is a loss of globally significant natural heritage.

“This is the face of global warming and a window into the future. If we don’t act now to prevent global warming, we’ll see more of these fires and more loss of precious wilderness that provides so much for Tasmania.

“The two lessons from this summer’s fires are that we need to respond early by deploying resources quickly, and we need to work so hard to prevent the global warming that’s putting Tasmania’s Wilderness World Heritage Area at risk.”

Tasmanian Greens senator Nick McKim went further. He questioned the suggestion from Premier Will Hodgman for an inquiry into how the fires had been managed. “Mr Hodgman’s thought bubble, released deep in the evening, contains no terms of reference, no commitment to seeking public input, or holding public hearings, and no indication of who might conduct the ‘review,’ ” he said.

“The only acceptable outcome is a fully independent inquiry chaired by someone like a recently retired judge or fire commissioner, funded to take public submissions and hold public hearings into both state and Commonwealth responses so we can get to the bottom of why it took so long for governments to act, and why adequate resources are still not available.

“Mr Hodgman knows his government and his Liberal colleagues in Canberra have let the Tasmanian wilderness down, and he’s trying to hide his failure under the carpet with an internal review.”

On February 10, Hodgman shot back with this statement: “The Greens’ Nick McKim should be ashamed for taking pot shots at firefighters. As fire personnel from Tasmania, interstate and overseas put their lives in harm’s way, the Greens have chosen to attack their professionalism.”

While this is debated, the fires continue to burn. According to John Holloway, there are plans to keep the firefighters in place until March 9, unless it rains. Until then, out towards Strathgordon, the road is closed.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Feb 27, 2016 as "Burning questions".

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John Martinkus is a foreign correspondent and author.

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