Nelson Bay after the fires. (Source: Tasmanian Fire Service Facebook)

We were in a hut in the Tasmanian Wilderness World Heritage Area when the lightning started flashing behind the moorland and the mountains, in the distance.

Two days later I had climbed to the top of Mount Oakleigh when I saw a billow of smoke rising from a forested hillside above the Mersey River. I made a few phone calls, and half an hour later, a helicopter from the Parks and Wildlife Service was making a reconnaissance trip over the area. Seeing the helicopter’s size in comparison to the smoke made me suddenly realise that it was a bigger burn that I’d realised — the chopper looked like a speck.

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The next day, another helicopter was filling up from Parangana Dam to waterbomb in the Walls of Jerusalem National Park. Coming back into town, I discovered that there were scores of fires, all across the west of Tasmania.

There were also several others, including a deliberately lit blaze in the foothills of Mount Barrow, which I can see from my bedroom window. For days the north was covered in an eerie haze; our record number of Chinese tourists found clean and green Launceston had the air quality of Beijing.

It’s not surprising that we’re having fires. It was a dry winter, and it’s been an unbelievably dry summer. The west of Tasmania is used to being bucketed down upon throughout the year, but now we’re going for bushwalks and not pulling out our jackets once (almost unprecedented). Working as a guide on the Overland Track, I hear our punters saying how lucky they’ve been with the weather. I couldn’t agree less.

Some of the fires have threatened shacks and homes in places like Mole Creek, Temma, and Mawbanna; others are burning in unpopulated areas. Bushwalkers have been removed from dangerous areas in the national parks, including my office — the Overland Track has been closed for a week and will continue to be so if the fires remain a threat.

As always in Tasmania, the issue has become political. Responding to a call from Tasmanian Greens Senator Nick McKim to allocate more funds to World Heritage Area fires, the Examiner, Launceston’s local rag, responded with an appallingly ill-informed editorial. “Fire has ravaged these areas in the past and will again,” it ranted.

However, the forests currently burning haven’t seen fire for up to a millennium, and native conifers and alpine vegetation are not adapted to a fire-driven ecology (unlike, for example, eucalyptus species, which in fact thrive on fire, a fact exploited by Aboriginal populations in Tasmania as elsewhere). And if we can trust ecologists in Tasmania — and might I suggest that we can — it’s just the beginning. “This is what climate change looks like,” said fire ecologist David Bowman. “This is system collapse.”

About 11,000 hectares of the Tasmanian Wilderness World Heritage Area has been razed. This is not much, the Tassie tourist lobby reminded us today. But it’s still significant.

About 200mm of precipitation fell one night last week in the north-east, but the rain band failed to reach most of the bushfires. Finally, it seems, most of the fires have been subdued; soon, we will be able to head up to the highlands and see the damage.

Throughout the years I have come to realise that my attachment to places — to landscapes and weather and walking paths and types of vegetation (even the spiky bastards) — is not something shared by everyone, so I know that when I say that the slow unfolding of the news of fires in the World Heritage Area here has at times made me physically unwell, not everyone will understand. But I know that there are plenty who do.

Wilderness photographers Dan Broun and Rob Blakers have recently published several pictures of the utter destruction caused by fires across the Central Plateau. From an ecological perspective, it will be interesting to see how the landscape changes. But much of what is lost are forests of rare endemic species that take centuries to mature. They are not coming back in my lifetime.

And these places may be threatened like this every summer now. If lightning strikes continue to increase in occurrence with the change of climate, cold-climate rainforest and alpine environments may go the way of the dodo.

For some of us, losing these unique places is about more than simply having beautiful things taken from us. These are the landscapes in which I first acquainted myself with the incredible collages of unique vegetation that belong only to the island of my birth. In these places I have strolled down narrow paths into and seen things I never knew existed: gnarled conifers doubling over against the westerly winds; countless multifarious lichens and fungi clinging to the thick, warped bark of myrtle beeches; mosaics of cushion plant communities between the dolerite boulders dumped by melting glaciers 10,000 years ago; shaggy buttongrass raising a long stem and bursting into cream-coloured flowers. I heard the chortle of the wattlebird high in the flowering gums and the snarl of the devil deep in the darkness and distance, and discovered that there was a whole other Tasmania — almost exactly half of it, in fact — that I had not been taught about throughout my Tasmanian education.

That’s why there have been extreme reactions from scientists, photographers and bushwalkers. It’s “like losing the thylacine,” said Bowman. This is more than doom and gloom; this is a dark awareness of the likely continuation of the loss we have already wreaked on this island.

“Under the current rate of warming I think this ecosystem will be gone in 50 years,” Bowman continues. If I’m alive then, I’ll wear the guilt for that heavily.

Our wild places have thanklessly given us an international reputation that is currently reaping rewards (including the employment of the otherwise unemployable, such as myself). What’s more, we are still learning from them. “Cold, silence and solitude are conditions that tomorrow will become more valuable than gold … on an overpopulated, overheated and noisy planet,” writes French author Sylvain Tesson.

But maybe tomorrow those conditions will be gone here too.

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey
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