The fire crisis still unfolding across Tasmania, with seven homes destroyed and over 205,000 hectares of world heritage wilderness and forest burnt, is not the first Dr Crystal Kolden has experienced in recent months.
“I spent a fair portion of November talking to people in the media about the fire in California that killed 86 people and burned down an entire town,” she told the Sunday Examiner, “25,000 people became homeless.”
Dr Kolden, a pyrogeographer and associate professor of fire science at the University of Idaho, is in Tasmania as a visiting scholar at the Fire Centre – a research hub at the University of Tasmania aiming to connect those studying fire-related topics with practitioners and support the needs of the Tasmanian community.
IN OTHER NEWS
- Public interest test boosted for RTI applications after Supreme Court ruling on obtaining gun laws advice
- Overland Track 'puffer pod' development passes state government panel; third Walls of Jerusalem tourism plan to reach next stage
- Union claims 20 plumbers have been sacked on the Royal Hobart Hospital site during contractual dispute
The visit is part of a knowledge sharing practice that has picked up between researchers in recent years, Dr Kolden said, mirroring existing lines of exchange between firefighters in Australia and on the Californian coast, which share much in the way of environmental and climatic fire factors.
A seminar next week presented by the Fire Centre and hosted by Dr Kolden, also a former wildland firefighter for the US Forest Service, will explore the global question of what to do about the reality of bushfire activity and how to go about it.
One approach to the problem – stretching far beyond Tasmania – is using fire science to identify global similarities and learn from the work of others.
“For us, we have not historically had as much fire as other parts of the US,” Dr Kolden said of her native Pacific northwest United States. “Particularly California – because our summers, while they get dry and warm, we almost always get a fair amount of [rain].
“And what we’re seeing in the northwestern United States that is also showing up in Tasmania is that summertime precipitation is decreasing … the vegetation that is used to getting rainfall in the middle of summer is now getting stressed and dry.”
That drying leaves the environment more susceptible to ignition sources, even if they aren’t increasing.
Last year the United States had one of its lowest instances of ignitions last year, Dr Kolden said, though in dry conditions even one can lead to destruction.
Our global climate right now is at a point it has not been at in tens-of-thousands of years ... we’re always going to be working in a novel environment.Dr Crystal Kolden, associate professor of fire science at the University of Idaho
The dry lightning behind many of the current Tasmanian fires is one example.
What those in the United States have found works best is not to pour money and resources on a fire after it ignites, but carry out significant preparatory work ahead of time to protect communities and critical resources.
Dr Kolden said though prescribed burning in their World Heritage sites had been effective in reducing the intensity of fires igniting in those areas – and may be effective in local eucalypt forests – the same would likely not work in some of the ancient Tasmanian wilderness landscapes.
“We’re never going to be able to prevent these fires from happening and that’s the challenge.”
The “unprecedented” flames of larger and more destructive fires – in Tasmania and around the globe – are largely fanned by a changing climate, Dr Kolden said.
Drought stress makes vegetation more flammable, which in turn makes it easier for fires to spread and retain energy as they move across the landscape.
“Our global climate right now is at a point it has not been at in tens-of-thousands of years, and what that means is that no matter what we do in terms of prescribed burning or fire management more broadly, we’re always going to be working in a novel environment.”
Though climate change is not the only reason – Dr Kolden pointed to evidence that forest management practices and the removal of Indigenous burning in certain US landscapes was also contributing – it is the overarching one.
“When the climatic conditions that are controlling the whole complex system are much warmer and drier than they have ever been, that tends to be the thing that wins out,” she said.
“Australia has just experienced an absolutely horrible hot [January] that is its hottest on record. Tasmania has just had the driest January on record.”
In Tasmania, this has led to fires that are “many, many” times more intense – and less receptive to water and retardant drops from aircraft – than those seen any time in the last 15 years.
“So it’s really important to think about, ‘alright this is a major event, it is terrifying to think that we’re going to see more of these’, and the temptation is to not want to deal with it.”
The Tasmanian situation
In a statement released Saturday afternoon, TFS noted that another day of favourable weather conditions had allowed crews to make further ground containing the fires still burning across the state.
Remote area firefighters and tanker-based crews continued work to extinguish hotspots and some of the combined 1700 kilometres of fire edge still active despite the recent rain.
More rain forecast for the coming days will further ease the fire risk and give TFS incident controllers a chance to reassess their resources, the spokesperson said.
However, the low cloud has hampered the use of some aircraft at the Britton Swamp, Gell River, Great Pine Tier and Riveaux Road fires.
It will also give some of the hundreds of personnel a chance to rest – an important point after weeks of efforts on the ground, with more still ahead.
The weather has also meant many roads in fire affected areas were able to be reopened – including the Huon Highway in the South and Highland Lakes Road between Miena and Bothwell.
Gordon River Road and Marlborough Road have also been declared safe for the general public.
A number of parks and tracks were reopened Saturday, including the South Coast and Lady Barron Falls Circuit tracks, though many still remain closed.
Based on what Dr Kolden has seen elsewhere, the state had been “really very lucky” so far this season to escape a major toll – both in terms of infrastructure and human life.
“And that’s impressive – and that’s really actually a testament to how well Tasmania Fire Service and Tasmanian Parks have handled it,” she said. “And that’s important to acknowledge because ultimately that is the biggest concern.”
While you're with us, you can now sign up to receive breaking news updates and daily headlines direct to your inbox. Sign up here.