OUR OFFICE IS ON FIRE, BUT WE GOT OFF LIGHTLY – A look at the Tasmanian Bushfires
Story by Matt Sykes
(Photo by Dan Broun of freshly burnt subalpine landscape)
Core of my heart, my country,
Land of the Rainbow Gold,
For flood and fire and famine,
She pays us back threefold –
Over thirsty paddocks,
Watch, after many days,
The filmy veil of greenness,
That thickens as we gaze.
Dorothy McKellar’s words in her timeless poem ‘My Country’ comfort and haunt Australians as we start to come to terms with another bushfire season. Trek Tasmania has paid particular attention to the fires in northwest and southwest Tasmania – our office.
The smoke and flames from remote areas in the west have been contrasted with floods along the Tasmania’s east coast, validating McKellar’s home truths. As ingrained as her words are in Australian literature, the patterns of life that inspired them will forever be part of our Australian landscape.
We need only look to the 2013 Tasmanian bushfires that most significantly affected the community of Dunalley in the state’s southeast. Schools, homes and lives were lost, farms and forests devastated. But visitors to this small village can see an incredible display of human resilience as the community rebuilds. Inspirational words hand-written on signs posted along its main road stand as a legacy to the suffering endured. Trek Tours wish the same strength for those affected by the recent bushfires.
Unburnt subalpine landscape, cushion plants & pineapple grass, photo by Dan Broun
A view from within the walking tourism industry
As a business that depends on accessing remote hiking trails and camps, and does so during the high risk summer period, Trek Tasmania understand the need to diligently manage our relationship with fire. This 2015/16 bushwalking season has seen Tasmanian Parks and Wildlife take conservative precautions, sending direct signals to the industry after the decision to close access into Freycinet National Park as early as October.
The recent fires have caused interruptions to three of our products: the Walls of Jerusalem to Cradle Mountain walking tour, Penguin to Cradle Mountain walking tour, and our Walls of Jerusalem walking tour. We’ve been able to offer our Frenchman’s Cap walking tour as an alternative and for those whom it hasn’t suited we were able to offer credit for future treks.
In truth though, we have got off lightly. A number of our colleagues have unfortunately experienced severe interruptions to their operations, and as a result incurred significant financial losses. Tourism Tasmania has had to manage the perceived and real dangers of the bushfires being communicated in the media. Not to mention our friends at Tasmanian Parks and Wildlife as well as the Tasmanian Fire Service who have had their resources stretched.
Walking through Buttongrass plains on the way to Frenchmans Cap
(Photo by Trek Guide Sean Whitehill)
Built into the ecology
As a company who is now transitioning from our Tasmanian summer treks to the winter season of the Northern Territory, what lessons are we to take away from the bushfires?
Perhaps it is wise to acknowledge that many of the ecosystems affected by the fires are designed to accommodate it. For example, Buttongrass (Pictured above), a species strongly associated with western Tasmania, is known as one of the most flammable plant species on earth but is able to rapidly regrow.
Greg Lehman, a palawa (Tasmanian Aboriginal) researcher tellingly explains, “there is ample evidence that palawa burning was closely associated with the establishment of extensive moorlands dominated by Buttongrass (Gymnoschoenus sphaerocephalus). This biome covers nearly one seventh of Tasmania and is well adapted to fire.” (Lehman, 2000) In short, these landscapes have been shaped by fire over tens of thousands of year through an ancient practice widely known as “fire-stick farming” which loosely resembles the managed burns employed by Parks and Wildlife. The introduction of European land uses and infrastructure does not change the land’s ecology.
‘A thousand generations or more of palawa land management is likely to have been characterised by periodic, low intensity burning in a patchwork which followed, and assisted, the movement of palawa tribes throughout their territories. This is not to say that there were not large scale, devastating fires in pre-European times. The palaeo-botanical record shows quite clearly that there were.’ (Lehman, 2000)
(For Tassie locals, look up “Vegetation Detectives” on Facebook to learn more.)
An old future
Bushfire experts, such as Jon Marsden Smedley and Jamie B. Kirkpatrick (2000) advocate ‘a return to Indigenous style fire regimes’ in Tasmanian parks and reserves. In order to do that the broader community has to reconsider our perspective. Before European settlement, Aboriginal people saw smoke in landscape as a sign that everything is as it should be.
In his recent book, The Greatest Estate on Earth, Bill Gammage (2011) quotes, ‘“burning tells the observer that everything is good. The people on that land are well and doing what is required of them. Country that is not burning, especially where it is known that people are present, is not good. It means something may be wrong and people should go and visit.”’
French and English perceived fire in the most fearful sense from the beginning. Francois Peron travelling as part of the Baudin Expedition in 1802, describes a fire scene ‘“In every direction immense columns of flame and smoke arose; all the opposite sides of the mountains … were burning for an extent of several leagues. Thus were destroyed these ancient and venerable forests, which the scythe of time had respected throughout the course of so many centuries, only to fall a sacrifice instinct of their ferocious inhabitants.”’ (Gammage, 2011)
It is likely that our future lies in the past, and that the recent Tasmanian bushfires are another chance to better understand the ecology of our sunburnt country.
At Trek Tasmania we see our role as one of awareness and connection. The stories that we share out on the track are the best vantage point for seeing ecosystems at work, including fire ecology and regeneration. To walk recently burned landscapes and landscapes shaped by fire is a doorway into the Australian landscape itself. By walking you are no longer an urban outsider, you learn to see the land in a more holistic way.
Lehman, G. (2000) ‘Turning Back the Clock: Fire, Biodiversity and Indigenous Community Development in Tasmania’ from From Links between Cultures and Biodiversity: Proceedings of the Cultures and Biodiversity Congress 2000, 20-30 July 2000, Yunnan, China, (ed., Xu Jianchu), Yunnan Science and Technology Press, Kunming.
Marsden-Smedley, J. & Kirkpatrick,J. (2000) ‘Fire management in Tasmania’s Wilderness World Heritage Area: Ecosystem restoration using Indigenous-style fire regimes?’ Ecological Management & Restoration. Vol. 1 No. 3 December 2000.
Gammage, B. (2011) The Biggest Estate on Earth. Allen & Unwin.