Written for that burning bright advocate Theresa Santi
When the kunanyi/Mt Wellington Management Plan is read today in the eerie afterglow of the summer’s fires its pages 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”. This written in 2015.
The Plan’s brief history of fire on the mountain notes, blithely, "the Park has experienced several large bushfires”. That section can now be revised, not just in the light of 2019’s fires (which have as yet barely touched the mountain), but with 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 chilling 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 in the bush itself, but the frequency of fires haunting the mountain is locational: the mountain not only rises out of a dense, wet eucalyptus forest, 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. The cable car is planned to ride up the eastern face.
The natural proclivity of the bush is inflamed by the ignition culprits: usually male. The mountain’s proximity to Hobart has made it a magnet to arsonists. “In the recent past, almost all bushfires affecting the Park have been caused by humans,” says the park Plan. That is unlikely to change if the past is any guide. Grist cites numerous news reports of fire-lighters (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 that “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 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. Grist found sporadic references to dry lightning fires as far back as 1840.
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 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 had described the mountain as ringed with fires. Baudin noted 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. The 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.On their determined journey to regain control over their lands, along the same fire paths Freycinet observed them upon, 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.
What is the cable car proponent’s response to all this? Publicly, the company has said nothing about The Primary Hazard. They simply say 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