University of Tasmania Professor of environmental change biology, David Bowman, is considered one of the world's leading researchers into wildfire.
As Tasmania approaches another fire season, The Examiner gauged his thoughts on the evolving threat of bushfire in the landscape, if a repeat of the 1967 catastrophic Hobart fire is a possibility, the impact of dry lightning, and whether we can ever be completely prepared.
Professor Bowman will speak at a public lecture at the Princess Theatre at 7pm on Tuesday, November 26, entitled "Managing fire risk in Tasmania".
AH: What is the role of fire in the Tasmanian landscape, and is that role changing?
DB: The Tasmanian landscape is an internationally interesting place because it's got a mixture of fire-tolerant vegetation - like eucalyptus forest - and fire-sensitive vegetation, like pencil pines, alpine vegetation and rainforests.
You've got this mix, it's probably one of the most interesting laboratories to understand landscape fire in the world because of that diversity. I couldn't be luckier to be a fire scientist in Tasmania. I've got rainforest, alpine vegetation, Savannah, giant forests, theres even heath and arid, Mallee-style vegetation.
We're still working out how it all works.
The second point is this:
To make matters very interesting, the Tasmanian Aboriginal people have occupied Tasmania for about 40,000 years. The Tasmanian Aboriginals were all over the island and their number one technology was fire. They managed fire, they used fire, they manipulated country, managed game.
What's so fascinating is that despite human ignitions for 40,000, when the European colonisation occurred, there was so much fire sensitive bush and fire diversity, they must have thought the Aboriginal must have been doing something pretty damn clever, but they didn't think about that.
I would love a time machine to go back and find out what that was, how they managed this environment.
We didn't respect it, we didn't understand it. Parts of that knowledge have been retained in the Aboriginal community. The awareness of how culturally-important fire is to Aboriginal people remains, they're very proud of their ancestors' achievement.
There's a real opportunity to rekindle the tradition, and we are doing that - working with the Tasmanian Aboriginal community to do just that. There's also a bigger repository of knowledge, and that all can be brought together.
The third thing:
A lot of people get muddled up about, 'well it's not the original fire regime', and my attitude is 'who cares?' Because the climate's changing, and the landscape's changed, so our challenges are to manage fire, maintain biodiversity, to maintain ecological health, and most importantly, to make our communities and enterprises safe.
AH: What effect did the 2019 bushfires have on ancient Gondwanan species?
DB: In the 2019 fires, we were very, very lucky, because it could have been a whole lot worse.
The reason they didn't get burned down was because there was just enough moisture in the landscape.
In 2016, however, we weren't so lucky, that's when we did have a bad impact of the Central Plateau.
Last summer was exhausting, 2016 was exhausting, 2013 was exhausting and incredibly destructive because of the Dunalley fire event.
Since 2013, we've seen massive impacts on human habitation, particularly Dunalley. We've seen ancient vegetation burn because of dryness in 2016, and we've seen massive lightning fires which were luckily not destroying the World Heritage Area, but had a very big impact on forestry plans, plantations, and regrowth forests.
AH: How can we prepare when fire risks come in so many different forms?
DB: That's the most important point: fire and fire impact comes in lots of different forms.
The thing about fire, it's a bit like cooking. You can cook lots of different sorts of food. The ingredients drive the menu.
What we've seen since 2013 is different climate and landscape ingredients being put together to get different fire outcomes. The bad news is that there's another set of ingredients we haven't had yet, and if we have them, then we could see significant loss of life.
That worries me.
Catastrophic fire weather, fire already in the landscape, fire impacting a major settlement - bigger than Dunalley, we're talking a town - like Hobart or Launceston - that's when you start scaling up to thinking about losing lives and suburbs.
AH: Is a catastrophic fire like this inevitable?
DB: I'm not a fortune teller, but everything we know about fire tells us that Tasmania is vulnerable.
We've got work ahead of us to confront that.
Is it all doom and gloom? No. There's lots we can do as a community.
It's going to take work, it's going to take investment, it's going to take community and capacity-building, it's going to take genuine leadership. A leadership that doesn't think about this team or that team, it thinks about making Tasmanian ready and safe and informed and prepared and empowered.
There are programs that seek to do that, but it also requires the community to really see this as a priority as well. It's a two way street. There's got to be more investment from government, but there's got to be more buy-in from the community.
AH: Do we take this risk serious enough?
DB: With the scale of the problem we're facing - there's never enough. You can't be over-prepared.
What you've also go to do is get community to accept that there will be false alarms, so don't criticise managesr if they put out a warning, and nothing bad happens. That doesn't mean that the managers are incompetent, it means they're being prudent.
Not all warnings are going to result in a direct impact, but we do know that eventually there is going to be a direct impact, and it's going to be terrible if people have made up their minds that if it didn't happen last time, they're just going to ignore it. That'd be a really bad outcome.
I've lived in Darwin, where we had a cyclone. Darwin was destroyed in 1975 by Cyclone Tracy, and it's just part of life up there that you do preparation every cyclone season, you just have to, because the town got destroyed in the past.
The thing about Hobart - 1967 is very real. For Hobart - if there's another 1967 event - it's going to be very bad.
Sixty-two people were killed, thousands of houses were destroyed, there was a really significant impact.
There's every reason to expect well have another of these events eventually.
AH: Many have made a link between dry lightning strikes and climate change after dry lightning lit so many fires in Tasmania last season. Do you think there is a link?
DB: Lightning records are really thin on the ground, so we don't have good historical data on how much lightning there was in 1900. We didn't have the technology to map lightning.
Some scientists believe that as you warm the atmosphere you get more lightning. Some scientists believe that you might even get less lightning because you change the weather pattern.
It's actually irrelevant, because what lightning fires are telling you is that the landscape is more receptive to lightning strikes. The landscape is drier. So even if you had less lightning, you could still be having more lightning fires, because you have drier vegetation.
As you warm the planet, one of the things that seems to be happening with planetary heating - certainly in Tasmania - is we're getting drier conditions, lower rainfall, rainfall patterns are changing.
So that means you get dried out landscapes particularly in western Tassie - not always, but often - and that means that if there's a dry lightning storm then it's a greater risk of fire. And I've seen them, I saw last year's when I was out in the South-West near Lake Pedder on really humid hot day, then that night, boom, in came the lightning storm, and that lit up fires everywhere because it was so dry.
The problem with lightning records is that they're very valuable, so there are certain groups in the world that have lightning data, but they wont share it, because it's so valuable. There's now a citizen science project that we're part of, where you can actually watch lightning storm on the internet.
AH: How can we improve forest management practices, including in Tasmania?
DB: There's a big debate about prescribed burning. There is also building concern that plantation and regrowth forests are particularly vulnerable to fire because they're so densely packed and low stature, they're a crop.
This is going to make some really significant challenges for the forest industry to manage that risk. It's quite achievable, but again like everything in this debate, it's going to be about human resources and investment in infrastructure and monitoring.
We're developing techniques for real time data on moisture, that's something I'm very excited about, that we would be able to put in forestry areas and plantations, and on farms. Then we need to have a suitably-trained labour force.
We have a big challenge Australia-wide, we'll have to employ more people and train more volunteers, and have inter-generational uptake.
It's the older generation, they cant do that forever. There's a large demographic transition happening.
We need to make being part of firefighting more contemporary, more cool for the younger ones, who are more open about climate change. That's something I'd like to see, trying to break down the ideological argument.
When the former fire chiefs send a message to the Prime Minster, when they talk, you have to listen. That's just a fact of the matter, they're the real deal. They're impressive men and women.
If they're saying there's a problem, it's making the politicians look a bit silly really.
In the community, firies have a lot of credibility. If they're saying there's a problem, and they're needing more resources, they're concerned about climate change, you'd want to have a pretty good argument if you're disagreeing with them.
They're coming at the problem not from a scientist point of view, but from their experience and what their profession is telling them.
AH: The TFS State Conference this year had climate change front and centre, and the theme was 'Not the Norm' - that there is no longer a normal fire season, that it's totally unpredictable. How can we adapt in this climate?
DB: You can adapt. It's going to take investment, research, training and an open mind.
You've got to be open to adapting. You can't adapt to a problem if you don't know there's a problem, if you're saying there isn't a problem. Step one is to acknowledge the problem.
What the firies - and pretty well all first responders - are doing, is robust and informed conversations about climate change. It's not a taboo topic in a practitioner space.
It's just part of the story, but unfortunately its got all muddled up with ideology.
What we need to do is ignore that ideological side of the argument. We're getting on with adapting and training, research and development.
Let's be positive, let's help people get through this. It's not about right and wrong, it's about helping people get to grips with a really big problem, and know that the firies and scientists are doing everything they can do understand and mitigate the problem.