As I write this, everything around me is blanketed by a pall of smoke. Three hours drive west of my home, the Tarkine wilderness is burning.
Tasmanian politics being what they are, official communications are still calling it the “Savage River fire”, which in its strictest sense is true: The fire is burning in the area of the Savage River. Everyone in Tasmania, though, knows that area as the Tarkine.
The Tarkine is a wilderness that dare not speak its name in Tasmania. A name that is so deeply rooted in the heated environmental politics of this state, that our forestry-dependent government simply cannot bring itself to utter it.
The name “Tarkine” was coined by environmentalists in the 1980s, named after the aboriginal people of the area. It is a renowned area of wilderness encompassing a great deal of the north-west quadrant of Tasmania, home to extensive tracts of rare temperate rainforest as well as stands of the famous, and heavily protected, Huon pine.
The campaign to protect the Tarkine began in the 1960s, and intensified over the ensuing decades, arguably peaking in 1995 when the state government constructed the infamous “road to nowhere”. Construction of the road was supposed to open the area to tourism, but environmentalists claimed a more sinister agenda; to lay the infrastructure for forestry and mining. It was also argued that building the road would subject the Tarkine to an unacceptably greater risk of bushfire, from vehicle emissions and increased human activity.
Environmentalists’ dire predictions have, alas, been borne out.
The Tarkine fire was started by an SUV driver who had crashed his vehicle and was unable to decide in which direction the road led out. In what would seem to be an appalling act of environmental vandalism, he then deliberately lit a bushfire to attract attention.
The entire state was at the time under a total fire ban.
Days later, the fire has mostly been contained, but it is as yet unknown how much damage has been done to the Tarkine.
Official reports have been relatively upbeat, but environmental groups haven’t yet made their own assessment. Roads are still closed to the public.
It is known that the fire burnt out huge areas of buttongrass plain, which should recover quickly. If, however, the fire has destroyed large areas of rainforest or Huon pine, the damage could take decades, if not centuries, to be repaired.
The role of fire in environmental management is a contentious issue in Australia. As someone who cares deeply about the Australian environment, and also as a volunteer firefighter, I have mixed feelings about fire. I do not believe that fire, and so-called “fuel reduction burns” are a blanket solution, but I also do not believe that we should bend all our efforts to preventing fire at all costs.
It is a difficult concept to embrace, but it is indisputable that much of Australia’s environment is truly a man-made artifact. From very soon after their arrival on this continent, humans set in train a pattern of burning that altered the very ecology of the land. Vast areas of rainforest gave way to much drier, open forests and plains. Many plants became deeply dependent on fire as part of their life cycle.
Captain Cook in 1770 made repeated references to sighting smoke and fires during his 1770 exploration of Australia’s east coast,
The arrival of Europeans in 1788 began another seismic shift in the role of fire in the Australian environment. The millennia-old aboriginal practices of “fire stick farming” quickly vanished, and the ecology altered accordingly.
Areas that Cook had described as looking like an English park - great grasslands dotted sparsely with trees - became densely forested, and the pattern of frequent, small and relatively cool fires altered to one of occasional, massive and destructively hot fires.
“Fuel reduction burning” is now the favourite topic of tub-thumping media commentators, with mendacious “greenies” blamed for allowing “the bush” to overgrow, causing the massive fires of the past decade.
The truth, as always, is much more complex. In some environments, fuel reduction burning is appropriate; in others, it is not. Some environments rely on fire. As Country Fire Authority (CFA) captain Billy Bubb, a veteran of the notorious Ash Wednesday fires and a near-legend among CFA volunteers, once said to me: “The bush loves a burn”.
He was, however, talking of the forests around his home in the Otway Ranges of south-eastern Australia. In this case, he was entirely correct. But in other environments, even ones adjoining the Otways, the use of fire is not always an appropriate tool of land management.
Even in areas where it is appropriate, managing fire is still a difficult and challenging task – one that is not made easy by the encroachment of suburbia into bushland.
As Jared Diamond has noted in his book “Collapse”, the efforts of the US Forestry Service are frequently hampered by often city-based property owners distressed at seeing forest fires burning around their weekend country retreats. Lawsuits over any property damage are quick to follow.
But managing even a “controlled burn” is not an easy task, something I know from personal experience. Having participated in even relatively small-scale burns around my home town, I have seen not only the numerous delays as Incident Controllers anxiously wait for exactly the right weather conditions, but also just how easily fires can escape control efforts even under optimal conditions.
Fire is undoubtably an essential land management tool in many parts of Australia. Establishing just which Australian environments are suitable for “firestick farming”, and just how to go about it, is one of the many environmental challenges that Australia faces, with increasing urgency, in the coming decades.
To quote a National Parks officer overseeing the introduction of fire management in Queensland: “Even with satellite surveillance and modern fire-fighting technology, we’re only just beginning to approach the expertise the Aborigines had with just bare feet and firesticks”.
X-posted to my journal and a couple of communities