Skip to content

Tasmania Is No Stranger To Devastating Fires–Despite What The Guardian Says

January 14, 2020

By Paul Homewood



Following all of the apocalyptic hype about the Australian bushfires, it is worth revisiting this Guardian piece from 2016:



A global tragedy is unfolding in Tasmania. World heritage forests are burning; 1,000-year-old trees and the hoary peat beneath are reduced to char.

Fires have already taken stands of king billy and pencil pine – the last remaining fragments of an ecosystem that once spread across the supercontinent of Gondwana. Pockets of Australia’s only winter deciduous tree, the beloved nothofagus – whose direct kin shade the sides of the South American Andes – are now just a wind change away from eternity.

Unlike Australia’s eucalyptus forests, which use fire to regenerate, these plants have not evolved to live within the natural cycle of conflagration and renewal. If burned, they die.

To avoid this fate, they grow high up on the central plateau where it is too wet for the flames to take hold. But a desiccating spring and summer has turned even the wettest rainforest dells and high-altitude bogs into tinder. Last week a huge and uncharacteristically dry electrical storm flashed its way across the state, igniting the land.

While these events have occurred in the past, says David Bowman, a professor of environmental change biology at the University of Tasmania, they were extremely rare, happening perhaps once in a millennium.

“It’s killing trees that are over 1,000 years old; it’s burning up soil that takes over 1,000 years to accumulate,” he says.

If this truly were a once-in-1,000-year event, says Bowman, then to be alive when it occurs is like “winning TattsLotto” for a fire scientist. But we no longer live in the same world.

“We are in a new place,” he says. “We just have to accept that we’ve crossed a threshold, I suspect. This is what climate change looks like.”



It is full of the usual sort of trigger words, so beloved by the Guardian BBC – devastating, global tragedy, heritage, 1000 year event, and of course it’s all linked to climate change.

Well, just how did things work out?

The Tasmania Fire Service chief officer Gavin Freeman claimed little harm was done to the heritage areas stating that 18,000 ha of heritage area as being the area affected out of a total of 95,000 ha burnt on the island. This is 1.2% of the heritage zone. The Tourism Council put the damage even lower, at 11,000 ha.

While that is the worst seen in recent years, it pales into insignificance alongside the fires of 1966/67, when 265,000 ha were destroyed in Tasmania, though that mainly affected the south east corner around Hobart. Other fires, such as 1897 and 1933 have affected the western part of the state, where the heritage forests are:




The idea that Tasmania is relatively immune to wildfire was debunked more than 200 years ago:


Tasmania forms part of the driest and most fire-hazardous continent in the world and our fire seasons are very irregular in intensity. Higher rainfalls in certain areas and the fertility of the soil contribute heavier concentrations of ground fuels than in other parts of Australia. When the right conditions prevail, fires can become uncontrollable and large conflagrations occur.

Tasmania has faced a series of devastating fires from early settlement in 1803. The new settlers were not used to the summer conditions which caused fire to spread quickly. As early as 1854 a Bush Fires Act aimed ‘to guard against damage by fire in certain months of the year’, by preventing fires being lit and escaping on to another person’s property. This was the result of a large fire which caused havoc when it ‘ravaged’ the outskirts of Hobart early that year.

Despite the Act, Tasmania has faced many devastating fires since 1854. The worst were in 1854, 1897–98, 1913–15, 1926–27, 1933–34, 1940–42, 1960–61 and 1967. In 1895 eleven houses were destroyed at Dundas on the west coast, and in 1897–98 an area almost the same as the 1967 fires was burnt when the ‘Black Friday’ fire spread rapidly through the south, destroying farms and forests. It covered the area from the lower Midlands and the Channel District to Port Arthur (destroying part of the Penitentiary), the Derwent and Huon Valleys, as far as Esperance and Cygnet. The fire in late December 1933 ­to January 1934 threatened the whole of the Derwent Valley and 300 volunteers were rushed to fight it. Perhaps the most devastating were the bushfires of 1967, a disaster of enormous magnitude in southern Tasmania, the blackest day in the history of the state.

Men from the Second AIF about to fight bushfires at Fern Tree in 1940 (AOT, PH30/1/3039)

Before the 1930s there was very little organisation to fight bush fires in Tasmania. The dangers from bush fires were well recognised but nothing much had been done to form an organisation capable of fighting them. However, the 1967 disaster led to the formation of the Rural Fires Board and eventually the Tasmania Fire Service, a splendid fire-fighting organisation.

I have mentioned the fires of 1966/67, but note the comment that the bushfires in 1897/98 affected almost as large an area, though there are no specific numbers. In those days of course nobody had the time, resources or inclination to go around measuring fires – they had far more urgent things to do! This would be even more the case in uninhabited areas, such as the heritage forests, which would just have been allowed to burn.

We do know more about the 1966/67 fires though:


The bushfires which attacked Hobart and adjacent areas of Southern Tasmania in the summer of 1966–67, peaking on 7 February, produced one of the most damaging natural disasters ever experienced in Australia. Such a disaster is a social event resulting from the impact of a disaster agent on a settled community. In this case some 653,000 acres of Southern Tasmania burned. In the short space of four or five hours on that ‘Black Tuesday’, the burning caused the deaths of 62 people, destroyed about 1,400 buildings (mostly homes, but also factories, schools, hotels, post offices, churches and halls), savagely disrupted communications and power facilities, and destroyed about 1,500 cars and trucks. The fires also did massive damage to surrounding farms, pastures and livestock, and total monetary damage was assessed at about $40 million (at 1967 values).

Ironically, but also in common with many other world disaster situations, this disaster produced an economic boon, with an estimated $34 million injected into the state’s economy in quick time, mostly from resulting commonwealth grants and loans (14.5m), insurance recoveries (over $10m – at that time, the biggest payout in Australian history), and distributions from a public relief fund ($5.1m) and a number of other private (church, service club, etc) relief funds.

In the social reconstruction after the burning, a number of the ’emergent groups’ familiar in the disaster literature were active. In particular, the Fire Victims’ Welfare Organisation assisted many thousands of people whose lives had been disrupted, and the social work experience acquired in the Tasmanian disaster carried over to the Brisbane flooding of January 1974 and Darwin’s Cyclone Tracy disaster of December 1974. The Tasmanian firestorm was one of four major disasters hitting Australian urban settlements in the short space of seven years (the other was the strike of Cyclone Althea in Townsville in 1972), and this conjunction produced a strong movement for the improvement of national disaster management machinery.

[Note the comment in the final paragraph about the four disasters hitting Australia between 1967 and 1974. I suspect climate scientists would be all over that if it happened now, blaming them on global warming!]


The Guardian article talks of a “dessicating spring and summer” in 2015/16, and it was certainly the driest spring on record in Tasmania in 2015, if only slightly drier than 1915.

However there is no evidence of springs becoming drier over the period as a whole since 1900.




As for summer rainfall, 2015/16 was not unusual at all. Again, there have been no unusually dry summers in the last couple of decades:



As for temperatures, although the spring of 2015 and 2017 stand out as the hottest, other years are in line with many previous springs.

The same applies to summer temperatures, with the hottest on record back in 1960:





In short, the wildfires of 2016 did not do the catastrophic damage claimed by the Guardian. Nor is there any evidence that bushfires are worse now in Tasmania than they used to be.

Neither is there any evidence that climate change will make them worse in years to come.




Wikipedia describe the causes of the 1966/67 fires:


The late winter and early spring of 1966 had been wet over southeastern Tasmania, resulting in a large amount of vegetation growth by November. However, in November, Tasmania began its driest eight-month period since 1885, and by the end of January 1967 the luxuriant growth in the area had dried off. Though January was a cool month, hot weather began early in February, so that in the days leading up to 7 February 1967, several bush fires were burning uncontrolled in the areas concerned. Some of these fires had been deliberately lit for burning off, despite the extremely dry conditions at the time.

Reports into the causes of the fire stated that only 22 of the 110 fires were started accidentally.

Shortly before midday on the 7th, a combination of extremely high temperatures, (the maximum was 39 °C (102 °F)), very low humidity and very strong winds from the northwest led to disaster.

Although this fire was by far the worst in loss of life and property in Tasmanian history, the meteorological conditions are common. McArthur’s report on the fire notes that "very similar conditions have occurred on three or four occasions during the past 70 years."[6]


This shows that it is not always a simple case of long spells of drought causing fires. In this instance, as we often see, wet weather in winter and spring can encourage vegetation growth, which just needs a few weeks of hot, dry weather to turn into very combustible fuel load.

  1. Philip Mulholland permalink
    January 14, 2020 8:02 pm

    In a recent BBC piece on the rain forest of western Tasmania I learned that the Mountain Ash trees are the tallest flowering plants in the world (i.e. they are not conifers), That they are gum trees and like all of their kind, require fire for germination.
    The program showed a climb of the tallest tree, two things were apparent
    1. The main bole at the top of the giant was broken and a significant height of timber above that point was lost,
    2. The smaller trees around the central giant all had bare dead timber tops.

    The best explanation for this is that at some point a crown fire had gone through this canopy layer and the trees have yet to recover.

    • Jongo permalink
      January 15, 2020 8:59 am

      This is not correct. Throughout the Tasmanian wilderness areas there are immensely tall trees, some 100 metres in height with their top 10 metres or so bare, white and dead, This is the result of the the trees reaching the limit of the height to which they can draw water and nutrients thus weakening them; they then become susceptible to the prevalent high winds in Tas. – it is in the Roaring Forties – which strip the top section of leaves and prevent any regrowth. The end result, often after some hundreds of years, is immensely tall white, skeletal looking giant trees, the lower limbs of which will continue living for many years, even decades. Forestry Tasmania have this well documented at the Styx River tourist spot from which I take this info.

      • Philip Mulholland permalink
        January 15, 2020 1:35 pm

        Hi Jongo,

        Thanks for your observers reply from the ground in Tas.

        In this instance the central giant climbed and filmed by the researchers stood above the surrounding dead tops and had a viable top cover crown branch with leaves. The thing that caught my interest was the physical size of the central bole at the very top of the vertical trunk. The bole diameter was much larger than the last over-topping canopy branch, so a physical break due to storm damage as you suggest is also a good explanation.

        The program made the point that, although over 1000 years old, this stand of Mountain Ash gum trees must all have germinated at the same time following a ground fire.

      • Philip Mulholland permalink
        January 16, 2020 1:46 pm


        Here is an alternative explanation that supports my view that the canopy damage is exacerbated by fire as well as by human caused exposure to damaging side winds.

        ‘Icarus Dream’ at 97m is the tallest tree in the Andromeda reserve. A further 10 trees exceed 90m in height making it the tallest stand of trees in the southern hemisphere. Sadly, most of the trees have suffered dieback in their tops, most likely due to the stand being disturbed by nearby logging and escaped regeneration fires.

        The only point of dispute is did the fire physically get into the canopy? A physical inspection of the in situ dieback tops would be a useful study. Drone inspection PhD research task anyone?

      • Jongo permalink
        January 17, 2020 9:21 am


        Sorry for delay.

        I can only repeat what i saw on the signage at the Styx River site from Forestry Tasmania.
        The tall white poles extending many metres above the olive green canopy are due to the inability to raise water and nutrients. Winds then break off the dead wood over time and this is how these trees die – over a long time. This feature is not uncommon in the forests of Western and North Western Tasmania – where I now live

        Fire in the canopies as far as I know is vey different – although i willl bow immediately to greater knowledge. The whole canopy is affected in such cases, and it grows back – always – relatively evenly, whilst what we are discussing is/are examples of isolated white trees protruding many metres above the general leafy canopy level. Burnt tree trunks are black, they are never white. I used to think like you – that the white poles were remnants of old bushfires, but that is apparently not the case.

        In 1969 I saw Happy Valley, over the Mt Arrowsmith road from Queenstown to Hobart before it as sealed): it was a devastation from the 1967 fires, with a plethora of white sticks protruding over hundreds of acres of regrowth. 5 Years later i couldn’t even recognise Happy Valley, and couldn’t now; it is a total wilderness of bush, gum forest and horizontal – with the peak of Frenchman’s Cap in the background (If you would like a description of ‘horizontal’ – as it relates to West Tasmania bush – let me know).

        I have some photos of the Styx River reserve and some of the trees, not necessarily the ‘white sticks’. If you are interested let me know.

        John M.

  2. MrGrimNasty permalink
    January 14, 2020 8:46 pm

    Tasmania has been destroyed by napalm fires (during clear cut logging), tree fern harvesting (Monty Don seems to like them in his garden despite bemoaning climate change and plastic pots!) for years and years, going way back – suddenly eco-loons care?

    And now it is being destroyed for wind turbines and power lines.

    The least significant threat is illusory climate change. Catastrophically misguided ‘green’ policies and a lack of common sense habitat protection and maintenance are the big threats.

  3. January 14, 2020 8:54 pm

    The 1966-67 Tasmanian fires happened when the atmospheric CO2 concentration was 320 ppm well below Bill McKibben’s safe level of 350 ppm, how is that possible⸮
    Just how low must the CO2 concentration go before bush fires are a thing of the past⸮

    • Mack permalink
      January 14, 2020 11:35 pm

      About 180ppm and they’ll all start their death throes naturally. 150ppm and downwards then it’s curtains, for everything with a pulse or a root stem. In CO2 terms we are at the very low end of planetary health, certainly when talking in geological time scales. We could quadruple the current ratio of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere and it wouldn’t do didly squat to the climate but it would vastly improve the natural world. Equally, forest fires were as common, if not more so, when CO2 levels were much lower than they are now. Looking at the evidence, anyone with a modicum of common sense and intelligence might just see that CO2 really isn’t the planetary ogre that it’s portrayed to be in the MSM. Without it, we are all dead.

      • January 15, 2020 1:48 am

        Mack Dr Patrick Moore does a real good job in one of his lectures under the title ,agriculture .And so does Dr Will Happer ,Dr Richard Lindzen and there is more.Why are these real climate scientists not being covered in the press.If it wasn’t for you tube the message would never get out .And yet on a daily basis all we get is fake news and doom and gloom about climate change

  4. Graeme No.3 permalink
    January 14, 2020 9:35 pm

    There is a natural cycle in western Tasmanian forests. Fire destroys the tall trees and makes room for new trees to grow. Even David Attenborough knows (or knew) that.
    He also seemed to think that the tall trees mostly lasted 400 years not 1,000. There are older trees but they are rare.

    Many years ago, an elderly lady mentioned that her father had been in the first survey team in SW Tasmania, in those tall trees. They travelled for nearly 2 days on what they though was leaf littered ground, until one of them fell through it. It was the build up on the lower branches several feet thick. Fortunately he wasn’t hurt.

    • Jongo permalink
      January 17, 2020 9:57 am

      Graeme No 3,

      (What happened to Nos. 2 & 3)

      I suspect that there is a mix up of stories here.

      Gum forest, ie. dry sclerophyll, does not – to my knowledge – build up layers in such fashion; rather it accumulates debris of leaves twigs and then larger and larger dead branches until there is a veritable mountain of dry dead fuel just waiting for a spark, you can’t walk through it, never mind over it. The higher the mound the hotter and higher the inevitable fire in drought conditions – our current and recurrent problem.

      On the other hand Western Tasmania has a such prolific rainfall that, coupled to very poor rocky soils, bush species of gum grow rapidly in close concert and to such heights that they’re spindly – one to two inches in diameter and 10 to twenty feet in height (sort out the metrics) and packed tightly together; eventually they fall over and interlace in horizontal form and appear as ground level. These ‘suspended floor’s were recorded as being so dense – and often very high off the ground – that explorers/surveyors/prospectors were frequently recorded as falling or crashing through them with sometimes fatal or highly injurious results.

      This growth can still be seen along the highways in this area although rarely now recognised for what it truly is – a dangerous menace.

  5. john cooknell permalink
    January 14, 2020 9:40 pm

    Wildfire Prevention Strategy is obviously failing. Nothing to do with Climate Change.

    The first priority of any Wildfire Prevention Strategy is to remove the fuel. If you don’t do that forget it.

    However in UK, my observation is Natural England, and their local hangers on, encourage woodland owners to leave trimmings and dead wood around in big piles, just waiting for the drought and spark.

    This of course conflicts with the UK Wildfire Prevention Strategy, but who cares the little critters have a home for a bit!

    I challenged my local Wildlife Trust over this, never got any sensible response, either they are thick or stupid, probably both. But they know they are saving the planet because they say so!

    • Gerry, England permalink
      January 15, 2020 2:00 pm

      Natural England lol. To be fair to them there are some good people there but as an example I give you Herstmonceaux Castle. This was designated by NE as a listed parkland as so a plan was needed to recreate this by removing the trees. Then NE turned up – little critter branch – to object to the trees being removed as there are dormice living there. This comes up regularly as just like Great Crested Newts, dormice are not rare in the UK. So what does a poor estate manager do when NE wants two completely opposed outcomes? Foresters are pragmatic people and so as there is a prison sentence for killing dormice, the trees stayed and the parkland lot blanked.

      In a managed woodland, the joys of biomass subsidies means that the even the brash has a value and is gathered up, chipped and sold, so not left lying around.

      • Philip Mulholland permalink
        January 16, 2020 2:05 pm

        In the good old days (1970s) I was a member of the Conservation Corps. One task I was involved in was to ground clear an abandoned hazel coppice in Silverdale to allow the woodland flowers to flourish. There was no market for the hazel we cut so it was simply burned on site. In essence all we were doing was recreating the environmental disturbance associated with the traditional craft of charcoal burning.

  6. Vernon E permalink
    January 15, 2020 10:59 am

    Off topic. Paul; we desperately need your analysis of the claims made by the muppet on yesterday evening’s Sky news (long) item about a report that the oceans are warming alarmingly (increased heat absorption, categorically due to increases in CO2 since 1980, equal to every person on the planet running a hundred micro-wave ovens continually at full power). I suspect some computer mal-forecasting on a huge scale but it was disturbingly convincing and will certainly add to the panic.

Comments are closed.

%d bloggers like this: