Bolt from the blue
Is climate change putting Tasmania’s unique wilderness at risk by lashing it with lightning sans rain? Jess Cockerill reports.
The day after Boxing Day had been a long one for Grant Joseph. The 44-year-old forester was driving home from the hospital in Hobart, through the low hills of the Derwent Valley. In the back seat of the family car, his daughter admired her newly plastered arm and, ahead of him, the sun was sinking in a stormy sky over Mount Field.
It was Joseph’s 28th fire season with the Tasmania Fire Service; he became a volunteer when he was 13 and was now the Westerway Brigade chief. Like any TFS volunteer, he kept his pager close at hand over the summer months; he was on call even when his daughter broke her arm.
The pager buzzes when you’re needed, telling you where to go and when. The firies carry theirs with pride — it’s a badge of duty — but they resent it, too. Joseph didn’t need a pager to read the silver flashes in the distance.
“It was a pretty good lightning show,” he recalls. “I was thinking, ‘Yep, we’re gonna have a fire.’”
That night — December 27 2018 — the storm passed across the Franklin-Gordon Wild Rivers National Park, an area in the “western wilds” best known for hydroelectricity and the blockade that gave rise to the Tasmanian Wilderness World Heritage Area. Bright arms of electricity clawed at the drought-dried tendrils of the buttongrass moorlands. The moorlands love fire; the grass stokes easily. The burning kills any hopeful tree saplings, while the grasses quickly re-emerge after the blaze.
Because it springs back from fire so quickly, nobody was too worried about the buttongrass burning on the remote Denison Plains. Eight firefighters were sent to respond in that first week. But by January 2 in the new year, the fire had crept downhill into Denison Gap, where the moorlands begin to give way to patches of wet and dry eucalypt. The Tasmania Parks and Wildlife Service (PWS), the government department in charge of this wilderness area, had carried out a fuel-reduction burn in 2015, but the blaze was still able to push through. By January 6, 50 firefighters were on the campaign, along with six helicopters flying back and forth between the remote fire zone and a grazing property in Westerway.
When the flames hit the Vale of Rasselas (through which the Gordon River flows and which was last burnt for fuel reduction in 1982), they licked rapidly south, aided by the steep incline of the Gordon Range. The fire stretched out of the World Heritage area and encroached on land slated for logging by Sustainable Timber Tasmania. By March 6 — almost 10 weeks after ignition — the Gell River fire, as it’s now called, had scorched 35,062 hectares of land.
Gell River was just one of several “campaign fires” — those designated as a focus for different agencies and fire departments across the state — started by lightning last summer. The 2018–19 season saw a larger area burnt than during the previous 10 years combined. On January 15, another “dry lightning” storm swept through, with 2400 strikes recorded. Seventy fires started, with major burns converging in the Central Highlands — referred to as the Great Pine Tier fire campaign — and to the west of Huonville and Geeveston, known as the Riveaux Road Complex.
In Australia, fire presents a difficult question. On the one hand, there is consensus that some degree of fire is inevitable — necessary, even. Much of the bush is fire-tolerant and is meant to burn. On the other hand, not unlike coral reefs hammered by bleaching, many now wonder whether there is a limit to how much fire the bush can cope with.
Grazier Bob Shoobridge, whose property served as an air base for the Gell River campaign, is a volunteer firefighter with the Bushy Park brigade and a mate of Grant Joseph’s. Shoobridge says fire comes from two places: “You’ve got stupidity and you’ve got nature.” Arson and accident fall under stupidity. Lightning strikes, in his summation, would be a natural force. But what if human-induced climate change were increasing their frequency?
In Tasmania, says Shoobridge, “You normally get a nice bit of rain with the lightning.” This wasn’t the case during last summer’s fires. Most of the farmers, foresters, tourism workers, civilians and conservationists I’ve spoken to believe the dry lightning events of the past decade were not previously typical of the Tasmanian summer.
But a review of last summer’s fires by the Australasian Fire and Emergency Service Authorities Council (AFAC) was inconclusive about the phenomenon. The report, handed to government in July 2019, pointed out that the technology for detecting and recording lightning strikes has vastly improved in the past decade and could not be adequately compared with the limited historical data available.
Though the PWS did express concern about the impact of dry lightning fires on Tasmania’s wilderness, it was similarly wary of jumping to a conclusion in the wake of the disastrous 2016 bushfires: “It is too early to know whether a shift in climate may be contributing to a long-term increasing trend in dry lightning activity in summers.”
Jamie Kirkpatrick, a geographer, conservation ecologist and professor at the University of Tasmania’s Fire Centre Research Hub, says the data he’s seen backs the anecdotal evidence that dry lightning events — and the fires they’re starting in Tasmania — are on the rise. Having arrived in the state almost five decades ago, he recalls lightning usually striking in the cooler months. Back then, the average temperature on land was one degree cooler; over the ocean, it was two degrees.
In 2017, Kirkpatrick published research about rainfall and temperature records in Tasmania’s west that revealed an increasing amplitude, or variability, over time. He says this variability reflects “unstable air”, which drives the pressure system to create stronger winds but also lightning storms.
“We didn’t have lightning strikes cause any fires until the late 1990s,” he says. “Before that … lightning strikes were associated with heavy rainfall, so the fire would just go out.”
Kirkpatrick says the increase in dry lightning strikes is the result of human-induced climate change: “It’s unnatural.”
Although the AFAC and PWS might not go as far as Kirkpatrick in apportioning cause, all parties are agreed that, whether or not there are more dry lightning bolts, the terrain they strike is becoming more flammable. Areas of vegetation that were historically “wet” are shifting to dry, “facilitating increased ignitions from lightning strikes than may previously have occurred”, according to the AFAC report.
In addition, notes the review, “… we heard reports of firefighters witnessing unusual and unpredictable fire conditions they had not previously experienced.”
Damp channels of tall Eucalyptus regnans (mountain ash) forest and rainforests that once provided a natural barrier between fire-prone and fire-sensitive habitats caught alight. Whole swathes of paleoendemic pine and alpine forests, timber plantations and bordering farmland were suddenly vulnerable.
Last summer, even ecosystems containing highly fire-sensitive species, such as King Billy and pencil pines, were affected. These ancient Gondwanan trees grow in remote places far from roads or dams, on mountaintops, in small islands of cold relief and protected by the borders drawn up by the World Heritage Properties Conservation Act 1983. This makes for extreme conditions so, in January, specially trained remote-area firefighters were recruited from New Zealand to help battle the Gell River fire.
“It’s pretty challenging to put them out, because you’ve got to get in by helicopter, you’ve got to set up your own little dams to get the water to fight them and, yeah … it takes a lot of resources,” explains Kirkpatrick.
Like many, Kirkpatrick is resigned to the climate changing — to some extent. In a future where Tasmania’s once-damp ecosystems are expected to dry, he believes a focus on remote area firefighting is the main hope in combating the effects of dry lightning — as well as efforts to mitigate the severity of climate change.
The AFAC review likewise encourages the Tasmania Fire Service to develop specialised remote-area firefighting capabilities, separate from the existing volunteer brigades, to better respond to events like the Gell River fire. The review also outlined, at length, the impacts of climate change and dry lightning on fire, but it didn’t go as far as providing recommendations for mitigating climate change.
It’s on the premier’s mind, though. In the 2019 budget briefing, Will Hodgman did acknowledge that action on climate change “protects our communities and our environment [which is] under threat from bush fires”. Of course, even if Tasmania were to achieve its goal of sourcing 100 per cent of its energy use from renewables, one individual state cannot solve this problem alone. Dry lightning is part of something bigger; so, too, is the wilderness, however remote.
Remoteness can’t protect a place from climate change. If the dryness more typically associated with mainland Australia slips into its southernmost state, it will be a worse invader than foxes or arsonists.
Jess Cockerill is a freelance journalist based in Melbourne.
This reporting was funded by the Walkley Public Fund and the Judith Neilson Institute for Journalism and Ideas through a Walkley Grant for Freelance Journalism.
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