Written for that burning bright advocate Theresa Santi
In the eerie afterglow of this summer’s fires, the pages the mountain’s Management Plan reek of smoke. The word “bushfire”, like a rain of embers, is spotted more that 140 times. “Bushfire”, the Plan says, “is the largest threat to the Park”.
The Mount Wellington cableway company is eerily silent on the threat.
In the Plan’s brief history of fire on the mountain notes blithely that "the Park has experienced several large bushfires”. That section can now be revised by the insight of historian Maria Grist’s meticulously chronicled study of bushfires on kunyani (2019). As well as the conflagrations of 1806, 1851, 1897, 1914, 1920, 1934, 1940, 1945 and 1967, Grist documents over 60 other significant mountain fires. Her burning conclusion is that over the past two centuries “nearly every year at least one bushfire burned on the mountain”.
The natural cause of this frequent ravaging is the bush itself, but the frequency of fires haunting the mountain is locational: the mountain not only rises out of dense eucalyptus forests, but over its shoulder are “extensive areas of dry country to its north and north west: the directions from which most fires emanate in Tasmania.” The management plan is most concerned with fire sensitivity. The peat bogs on the plateau behind the Pinnacle and the delicate alpine flora have the highest fire sensitivity and are at most risk; however, for combustibility, the forest upon the mountain’s eastern face carries the greatest fuel load.
As the map below shows, the cable car is planned to ride up the eastern face.
This natural proclivity is inflamed by the ignition culprits: usually male. The mountain’s proximity to Hobart makes it a magnet to arsonists. “In the recent past, almost all bushfires affecting the Park have been caused by humans,” says the park Plan. Grist cites numerous news reports of fire-lighters (once known as “excursionists”—typically larrikin boys) negligently or deliberately setting the mountain afire year after year throughout the 19th and early 20th centuries. The earliest report is dated 1828, when an “enterprising party of Young Gentlemen” climbed “this splendid work of nature” to deliberately turn its Pinnacle into a pyre. That enterprise incinerated the summit and by the next evening its fire had moved “from one end of the ridge to the other.”
Presciently, the Plan—composed in 2014—also suggests another danger; lightning. Grist found sporadic references to dry lightning fires as far back as 1840. “Bushfires started by lightning would be a major threat to the Park if they occur in inaccessible areas” and “[though] there are no records of any recent bushfire caused by lightning in the Park, this could change in the future, as evidenced in the Tasmanian Wilderness World Heritage Area.” Over the summer of 2018–19 dry lightening set off over 70 fires in the World Heritage Area and a senior ranger graphically described to me running for his life across a buttongrass plain with bolt after bolt exploding in the mounds around him. On December 15, 2018 an ominous dry lightning strike ignited 5 acres of Wellington Park on Tom Thumb.
Today, Hobart’s Fire Protection Plan (2017) uses BRAM software (Bushfire Risk Assessment Model) to map and assess the likelihood and consequences of bushfires. Over almost half of the cableway path the BRAM risk is “Extreme” and the consequence level “Catastrophic”. So great is the threat, bushfire is categorised as the “Primary Hazard” to the Park. It is the sharpest prong of a terrible trifecta: fire, flood and landslide. The one sometimes causing the next. But the greatest of these is fire. Bushfire, the Park plan concludes, is “the largest threat to the Park both in the short term and into the future”.
The mountain has been terrifically scarred by fire in the past but worse may be yet to come. Over the course of the 21st century the management plan envisages global warming exacerbating the Primary Risk of fire—but even a clockwork continuation of the past makes catastrophe certain.
The Park’s managers therefore developed a detailed Management Plan focused entirely on fire and in it devote their attention to all strategies that might reduce, mitigate or manage—though of course not eliminate—fire. Elimination is not only impossible but undesirable. The eastern face needs to burn: “fire can benefit the dry forest plant communities on the lower slopes of the Park”. Controlled burns are a key middle-ground tactic. The statutory responsibility to preserve and protect the mountain’s forests and the creatures that depend upon it will inevitably bring the Park’s rangers into conflict with cable car operators. For of course… even controlled burns do sometimes get away and how they would be managed beneath a cableway is unclear.
The Management Plan also says “much of the Park’s fire-susceptible historic infrastructure has been burnt.” Respect the Mountain suggests that this statement should be read to the cableway company’s shareholders and asks: “Will the Tourism industry, state government and investors now stop and think about the consequences of creating ‘Tassie's next big thing in tourism’ on what fire ecologist Professor David Bowman calls ‘a biological volcano’?”
The blaze of 1806 may well have been one of the final fires of the mouhenner. Eighteenth century explorers described the mountain as ringed with fires. From Storm Bay Baudin observed that the high forests upon the Platform Mountain (kunanyi) were less dense—appearing to have been burnt off. One of Baudin’s officers, Louis-Claude Freycinet came ashore near [present day] Glenorchy desirous of meeting the mouhenner people whom he had seen from the river. His longboat beached and the crew took off after the mouhenner who were heading swiftly inland toward Goats Hill. The crewmen observed them alighting the bush as they walked over the brow. The French, undeterred and as quickly as they could, followed through a wall of smoke. They next saw the unknown mouhenner ascending Mount Hull several kilometers away, and then in the afternoon at Mt Communication, setting one burn line after the next. The French could not catch up and after an all-day twelve kilometre hill-climb, desisted, observing the locals still extending the front of their fire as they vanished over Collins Bonnet. Describing the day in his diary, unknowingly, Freycinet became the first to record fire-stick farming at landscape-scale.
In 2019 Greg Lehman and I crossed this fire path and from up on Tom Thumb Greg pointed out a triangular fire scar in the valley below characteristic of regular ancient past burns. The only aboriginal artefact to be recorded high on the mountain’s slopes was also found along this ancient pathway between the Derwent and Huon valleys. On their determined journey to regain control over their lands, along the same fire paths where Freycinet observed them, to re-perform their ancient, rhythmic cultural and agricultural practices of renewal: the mouheener will one day return to the mountain with fire in their hands.
None of this has made any impression on the cable car proponent. Publicly, the company has said nothing about The Primary Hazard. They simply state they will not operate during “extreme fire danger”, and if a “sudden, unexpected and catastrophic fire” broke out, they have a water tank at the Base Station and, on top of the mountain (where there is no water) the Pinnacle Centre has “a fire-proof shell”.
It would be wrongful to suggest that tourists face being burnt alive in a skytram turned into a spit, but fires across the face of kunanyi are not extreme weather events nor are they new and the Pinnacle Centre would be at the top of the pyre, in the very mouth of the volcano; its inaccessible twin towers would be the lightening rods of their own incineration, and with the base station surrounded by dense bush the cable car enterprise is doomed.
Banner image: cover of the Hobart Fire Management Area Bushfire Protection Plan