By Andy Szollosi
It was late autumn and the fagus leaves around Tasmania’s highlands had already turned and fallen. I loaded a roll of film into the Pentax and two days worth of rations, including a full jar of peanut butter, into my rucksack. I threw my bag and my touring bike into the back of my station wagon. It was dark by the time I drove out of Hobart. I was southward bound.
My aim was to undertake a reconnaissance trip to the upper Huon Valley to inspect and document the aftermath of the bushfires that occurred in January this year. I wanted to see with my own eyes the extent of the damage, find out what kind of vegetation burned, and assess how these areas were recovering. Part of me dreaded seeing the devastation, but curiosity got the better of me. The country in question meant a lot to me; I had to find out what happened to it.
A key challenge to gaining a vantage point from where the extent of the burnt area could be surveyed was the limited vehicular access. Due to the increased risk of falling trees following the fire, the Arve Road –which gives access to the Tahune Airwalk, the Eastern Arthurs, and Mt Picton– had a gate placed across it just after the Hartz Mountain turnoff. So, I parked the car, loaded up my panniers with my bushwalking gear, and rode past the locked gate on my pushbike. I was fully aware that I was entering an area deemed unsafe by Parks and Wildlife and accepted the risks. I had also done my research and knew that there was no more fire fighting activity in the area that my presence may interfere with.
Three months after the fires, the Huon Valley was still smouldering.
The forest on both sides of the Arve Road had burned; the ground and the trunks of the trees were charred and the singed leaves remaining in the canopy were orange, brown and red. Although the fire passed through three months previously, the ground was still smouldering in places. The acrid smell of charcoal permeated the air. Nevertheless, the vegetation clearly showed signs that it was already recovering. The tree fern and cutting grass stumps were already growing new shoots, and the trunks of some of the eucalypt trees were blanketed in green leaves. The forest surrounding me had been burnt, but it most certainly wasn’t dead.
There is a prevailing sense in Australia that our bush is meant to burn, that fire is required for the regeneration of the landscape. Although this may be true in certain natural areas, to apply this idea to all natural landscapes would be a gross oversimplification of the issue.
In Tasmania we have unique eco-systems that occur nowhere else on Earth. Our temperate rainforests and our alpine areas contain life forms that have survived from a chapter in Earth’s history when the climate was wetter and colder. As a result, this type of bush is fire sensitive; it doesn’t always regenerate after a fire. And the reality is that the likelihood of dry lightning strikes coinciding with hot and dry climactic conditions are predicted to be on the rise in Tasmania. Gondwanan forests that have never burnt before may be under threat if we fail to address anthropogenic climate change. Plants and animals and fungi that have survived on this earth for millions of years may disappear because of our collective lifestyle choices.
As I cycled through the burnt landscape, I imagined witnessing the fire and the terror to all the inhabitants of the forest. The choking smoke, the thundering roar of the fire, the crashing of trees, the smell of burnt fur and flesh… Looking around me I wondered about my contribution to this mess. If the emissions of greenhouse gases helped create the conditions which led to this fire, and my actions have led to the emission of greenhouse gases, then to what degree am I personally responsible?
Tasmania's fragile alpine herb-fields have avoided major harm this summer, but their future is uncertain.
I was brought out of my reverie when I arrived to the trailhead to Mt Picton. Quick lunch, load the rucksack, then into the rainforest. The transition from the burnt landscape into the pristine temperate rainforest wasn’t lost on me. I was climbing up on a south easterly slope, and given the time of year, barely any light reached the understorey. It was dark, damp and rather cool, despite being the middle of the afternoon. The trunks of the trees were carpeted in vibrant mosses and lichens, lush green carpets that act like a wet sponge during drought; releasing water slowly to the surrounding vegetation. I was relieved that this forest had been untouched by the fire.
As I gained elevation, I eventually climbed out of the rainforest and into the sub alpine scrub. After following a few false leads I arrived to the shelf that was to be my campsite for the night. The dolerite cliffs of Mt Picton towered over me while I slept.
I made a dash for the summit plateau the next morning, before first light. The sun rose as I stood among the hundreds of tarns on top of the mountain. The air was completely still, and the mountains of the South-West lay scattered about me. The dense fog sat in the Huon and the Picton valley obscuring the fire damage for the time being. I sat down on a large boulder and watched as the sun rose higher in the sky, slowly dissipating the mist in the valleys. Eventually, the singed forests emerged from the mist, patches of browns and reds and oranges among the green. Most of the burnt area appeared to be buttongrass and forestry plantations. The scale of the fire blew me away.
Early morning light on Mt Anne in the distance, the singed Huon Valley shrouded in mist in the foreground.
The fact that so much forestry plantation had burnt raises the question of economical cost to our state if our fire regimes are indeed changing. If our bushfires are getting more frequent and more severe, this represents an increased risk to the most flammable types of vegetation. Forestry plantations usually consist of monocultures of eucalypts, which act as flammable hot spots across Tasmania. Fires in these plantations don’t only represent a monetary loss to the state due to loss of harvestable timber, but fires that start in plantations often spread to adjacent natural areas where they threaten universal heritage values.
Following the 2016 bushfires, the Tasmanian government commissioned a report* that made a number of recommendations to ensure the protection of the natural and cultural values of the Tasmanian Wilderness World Heritage Area. This is a step taken in the right direction. It shows that we do value the conservation of our wilderness. It remains to be seen how effectively the recommendations by this report are going to be implemented over the coming years. And even if appropriate steps are taken to improve our fire management strategies, we are yet to address the real cause of the problem.
If we wish to address the fundamental threat to Tasmania’s wilderness, we need to acknowledge anthropogenic climate change and start thinking in planetary terms. We need a cultural shift away from a consumption hungry economy, towards a more humble attitude that acknowledges the limits of the natural systems which we are part of. If we wish to retain our Gondwanan heritage, we need to look at our own individual lifestyle choices. When we have learnt to value an ancient forest the same way we value our own homes, that’s when we’ll know that we are on the path to becoming true custodians of our land.
The mighty Picton River was no barrier to the fire.
*(TWWHA Bushfire and Climate Change Research Project, Press, 2016).
Feature image: Kyle Rickard