Living in the line of fire

“Dense human settlements in eastern Australia are located in perhaps the biggest pile of flammable vegetation fuel on the planet.”

Prof. William Bond wrote this in a review of Flammable Australia. Fire Regimes, Biodiversity and Ecosystems in a Changing World. It was rather poignant that our correspondence regarding his book review was only a week after the Tasman Peninsula fires at Dunalley. The fires were burning 20 kms from our property, as the crow flies. The images below were taken from our house:

The Tasman Peninsula Fire, 4th January 2013. Images a,b,c and d show the progression of the fire with time shown. The arrow (image b) shows the height of the convection column. The height of this column demonstrates the strong winds and the direction the passage of embers which created spotting well in front of the firefront.

The Tasman Peninsula Fire, 4th January 2013. Images a,b,c and d show the progression of the fire with time shown. The arrow (image b) shows the height of the convection column. The height of this column demonstrates the strong winds and the direction the passage of embers which created spotting well in front of the firefront.

Fire wasn’t once the big topic it is now. Bond describes this in his review, citing that the subject, once in the ‘ghettos’ is now mainstream and now global: vegetation modelling; satellite imagery; historical accounts (we can include social media here); paleoecology; weather modelling; and fire behaviour science. Indeed with all these things fire ecology is bigger than it once was. But for me, the crux of the matter is in the words quoted above.

“Dense human settlements in eastern Australia are located in perhaps the biggest pile of flammable vegetation fuel on the planet.”

The east coast of Australia is now very well populated. Where once people would move from place to place, since European settlement the development of towns and cities mean people are now very stationary. Once considered communities on the outskirts of Melbourne, towns such as Kinglake, Lilydale and Healesville are commuter points and populations in the Yarra Ranges Shire are expected to increase with estimates of 24,000 more people by 2036.

Towns in south-eastern Australia, situated in vegetated areas which were once considered remote and inaccessible, are now increasingly populated by humans. They have also become summer tourist destinations; a quick escape from the hustle and bustle into the hills surrounding Melbourne is a popular weekend or holiday activity. These areas and towns to which people are ‘escaping’ are surrounded by fuel and fire adapted species. More and more people are living in this fire prone environment. It has adapted to and accepted the consequences, but have we?

Many vegetation communities and species found in Australia have been molded by natural fire i.e. fire that is not human induced. Fire is integral to the structure and function of these communities. The ‘human dimension of fire regimes’ has been discussed and although clouded by environmental factors and historical knowledge, there is some evidence that humans have induced changes in fire regimes through activities such as vegetation clearance and fire ignition or suppression. The fundamental point is that humans and fire have long been intertwined  – so how do you disentangle ‘natural’ and ‘human’ fire regimes, and try to do so whilst factoring in changing climate? It’s not simple and it’s not a ‘one size fits all’ answer. Perhaps a more important issue is the altered fire regimes themselves, and the more important question is: what do we know and understand about altered fire regimes?

This question is most important for me, because we (my family), like those on the outskirts of Hobart and Melbourne, have chosen to live adjacent to that ‘biggest pile of flammable vegetation’. And this choice is all the more important to us because come summer time we know the risks, we have an understanding of the fire regime for the vegetation close to our house, and still, we have chosen to stay. The alerts to the start of the bushfire season do feel premature- my husband was only skiing on snow in our front yard six weeks ago!  But I recall quite distinctly on the 12th October in 2006 coming back from the field early one day (it was very windy) and being called home from work that afternoon by my husband, as a fire had been lit and it was on its way through dry sclerophyll forest on the eastern shore – our house was in the firing line. I was on the western shore and I had to drive north, around and behind the burnt area in order to get home; the usual 15 minute drive took almost 1.5 hrs. That afternoon and night we watched the fire creep over nearby Tunnel Hill – it was only 1 km away and the fire spread was rather reminiscent of the maps of the 1967 fires in our area.  However, we went to bed that night, as we were confident in reading the fire weather: we knew the wind speed and direction were taking the fire away from us.

12th October 2006. The arrows in image (b) and (d) show the position of a house in the fire zone. Image (c) is credited to Ian Stewart (ian.stewart@auroraenergy.com.au)

12th October 2006. The arrows in image (b) and (d) show the position of a house in the fire zone. Image (c) is credited to Ian Stewart (ian.stewart@auroraenergy.com.au)

The fire season in Tasmania used to be from November to March, but that is no longer realistic. A fire event in October is rare, but not unheard of. After all, history tells us that in May 1913 a bushfire fanned by gale force winds destroyed buildings and farms in the north-west part of Tasmania.  Fire history can teach us much. I have learnt a lot about fire from Tasmania’s many major fire events (e.g. 1897-98, 1913-14, 1933-34, 1960-61,1966-67, 1981, 1982, 1993, 1998, 2003, 2009-2013) and Victoria’s (1925-26, 1931-32, 1938-39, 1951-52, 1959-60, 1964-65, 1967-68, 1972, 1977, 1983, 1985, 1997, 1998, 2002-03, 2005-06, 2006-07, 2009, 2013). Watching a DVD on Tasmania’s 1967 wildfire was rather humbling, as was watching the account of the harrowing experience of the 2013 Tasman Peninsula fires by residents. These accounts are a good reminder – history can repeat.

In 2013 we numbly watched the Tasman Peninsula fires unfold from our deck. Only a month later, on the 6th February, we had a fire approach our house. This one was also travelling towards us, but once again the wind changed direction to more westerly and the windspeed dropped, both drawing the fire away from us.  However, typically, a week later the fire flared up again and burnt our neighbour’s hill. The children had a great lesson in fire ecology that week.

6th February - 13th February 2013. The fire reached Eagle Hill, situated 1500 m north of our property. A week after is started, it flared up again on the 13th February (images c and d) and three helicopters were sent to assist ground crews.

6th February – 13th February 2013. The fire reached Eagle Hill, situated 1500 m north of our property. A week after is started, it flared up again on the 13th February (images c and d) and three helicopters were sent to assist ground crews.

We have we been forewarned of the strong possibility of the ‘perfect storm’ and ‘higher than normal bushfire risk and the potential for a longer fire season for much of Tasmania this year’. It is significant that this weekend, the first weekend in October, we are expecting warmer weather and high winds.  Today the Tasmanian Fire Service brought a fire under control on the other side of the valley. We have a Total Fire Ban tomorrow. The fire season has started.

Reducing the fine fuel within the outer zone around our property. This has involved a combination of slashing, mowing and burning.

Reducing the fine fuel within the outer zone around our property. This has involved a combination of slashing, mowing and burning.

We have been busy along our back slope slashing, clearing and burning to reduce the fine fuel loads around our house in areas most likely to be first hit by fire. I have no doubt that should an extreme fire event occur, the ‘biggest pile of flammable vegetation fuel’ will win and our house will not. Just so long as we are alive and well.

The forest can regenerate, but people cannot.

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