Climate warning at bushfire inquiry

DAMAGING: Fires burning near Lake Mackenzie in January. Picture: Phillip Biggs.
DAMAGING: Fires burning near Lake Mackenzie in January. Picture: Phillip Biggs.

Tasmania could see major transformations in its landscape as climate change-caused fires impact vulnerable species, an expert has warned a Senate inquiry.

Evidence showed pencil pine trees burnt thousands of years ago never recovered, University of Tasmania environmental change biologist Professor David Bowman told the inquiry into responses to recent bushfires in remote Tasmanian wilderness.

Professor Bowman said he didn’t make the decision lightly to identify last summer’s Tasmanian Wilderness World Heritage Area fires as a symptom of climate change.

However he wanted to warn the community that such unprecedented events occurred with a rapidly warming climate, he said.

The summer’s bushfires took fire managers to “the limit of their imaginations let alone their capacities” after lightning struck in vast  and unusual quantities throughout remote wilderness areas, Professor Bowman said.

While rapid attack firefighting and fire detection would save some vulnerable systems in the TWWHA, he warned against expectations that all fires could be extinguished.

These expectations were unfair to fire managers, Professor Bowman said.

“This is a very challenging environment, particularly given the soil can burn.” 

“Even detecting the wretched things is difficult, let alone putting them out.”

There was a need for a “robust scientific investigation” of why the fires behaved as they did, Professor Bowman said.

“We’re all being challenged by surprises. Having this evidence-based conversation is really critical.

“It is challenging for fire managers who have seen this vegetation being threatened burning to actively predict how the fire will behave.”

Research into the TWWHA lacked a “central organising principle” and, for the university sector, a reliable income stream.

The Wilderness Society urged the committee to recommend that the management plan for the TWWHA prioritised protection of irreplaceable values over built infrastructure.

State environment minister Matthew Groom is expected to finalise the plan by the end of the year.

Fires impacted about 20,100 hectares, or 1.3 per cent, of the TWWHA last summer. About 2,700 hectares of fire-sensitive areas with vegetation not adapted to recover from bushfire were damaged.