Life in a flammable landscape

January 2019

In a TMAG exhibition about the 1967 Tasmanian Bushfires, I saw something that stopped me in my tracks. It was a map drawn at the time by resident Keith Roberts that shows the extent of the fires in his wider neighbourhood of South and West Hobart.

I was shocked to see his jagged red lines surrounding the area where my family now lives. Houses burned in Huon Road just fifty metres or so up the hill from our old weatherboard house. The South Hobart post office was destroyed. Across the valley, the forested hillslopes below Forest Rd were razed.

It was a graphic reminder that our annual bushfire season can take city-dwellers by surprise.  An undeniable aspect of summer in Hobart is our greater vulnerability to bushfires than any other Australian capital city.

And as climate change becomes a reality, extended heat waves and more extreme temperatures fanned by high winds in low humidity are ushering in an age of megafires.

Queensland’s catastrophic December fires torched rainforests that aren’t meant to burn. Entire towns were evacuated at moments’ notice.

2018 was California’s most destructive fire season in the state’s history. More than 8500 fires caused over 100 deaths and destroyed tens of thousands of buildings. Fires spread from house to house as suburbs themselves became wildfire ‘fuel’.

In Hobart climate scientists advise that dangerous fire weather days will increase over the coming decades here, just as they are around the wold.

Bushfire is the biggest risk facing Greater Hobart. As Mayor I worry about our readiness as a community to prevent loss of life and injury. I also worry about the massive disruptions of a large fire on the city’s economic development.

Yet Hobartians are also lucky to be able to live close to nature – it’s one of the things we love most about our city. But this comes with risks that must be managed, and brings extra responsibilities for governments and citizens.

Intense dry north-westerly winds, funnelled through hilly terrain covered in dense eucalypt bushland, mean that dangerous fire weather here can deliver some of the most intense fires on earth.

As global fire expert and Hobart resident Professor David Bowman says, “without wanting to alarm people, you probably couldn’t have put a capital city in a worse place.” 

The key to living in our flammable landscape is managing fuels and stopping wildfires from starting or spreading. I am confident that our team at Hobart City Council is workingeffectively to reduce the threat of fire to the city. 

Council is spending $1.9 million on bushfire preparedness this financial year, which includes the cost of specialist staff, undertaking hazard reduction burns, maintaining an extensive network of accessible fire trails, and creating new fire breaks around the city. 

The City of Hobart’s largest ever fuel reduction burn near Mount Nelson Signal Station aims to protect houses and bushland across Sandy Bay, Mt Nelson and Taroona.

We’ve also created new fire trails in Bicentennial Park to allow firefighters to reach the front of a bushfire before it gets out of control, and create buffer zones between bushland and homes.

Soon we will carry out an ecological burn in Knocklofty Reserve, to protect a patch of forest that’s home to some of the oldest trees in Hobart and several threatened species. The burn will be managed to minimise impacts on the reserve, with measures in place to protect significant values, such as the nesting habitat of tawny frogmouths and owls.  

We have also approved the clearing of new firebreaks in Fern Tree for the first half of 2019. We undertook in-depth consultations with the community who understand that while the new ‘green fire breaks’ will look different, they will be designed to retain some ecological qualities. They may not prevent loss of property on the worst fire weather days, but may buy the few extra minutes crucial to prevent loss of lives.

However, all of this work will still not stop the fire disaster that is likely to reach us one day. This means we need to become an even more fire conscious community over the coming years.

My hope is that with our limited budget Council can find new resources to further assist the community to reduce the fuel on their own properties. With new funds we could undertakeprograms to ensure homes are more resistant to ember attack. 

A bushfire might arrive in the middle of the night, or on a weekday when families are in different locations around the city. I appeal to you not to rely only on others but to also make your own preparations – eliminate excess vegetation around your house, clear gutters, and ensure your family has planned its response to a range of scenarios.

52 years after the 1967 inferno, the forested hillslopes of my neighbourhood have all regrown, with more houses built amongst them. It’s imperative that we work to reduce the fire risk, as the consequences of a city-fire today are even greater. I ask for your support to learn from the past and ensure Hobart’s next bushfire disaster isn’t a human one.