Tasmanians have been put on notice that the bushfire threat is larger than ever, as the state today commemorates the 50th anniversary of the devastating 1967 fires.
On February 7, 1967, dozens of blazes across south-east Tasmania developed into a firestorm, and within hours 64 people were dead, 900 injured, 7,000 homeless and tens of thousands of hectares scorched.
Former Tasmania Fire Service (TFS) chief John Gledhill believes it is not a matter of “if” such a perfect firestorm of conditions arises again, but “when”.
He was a 14-year-old Rose Bay High School student at the time of the fires and went on to spend 35 years at the TFS, 15 at the helm.
Despite modern firefighting techniques and capacity, Mr Gledhill believes another disaster is inevitable.
“It will happen again, there’s no doubt about that, when is the big question,” he said.
“The difference now to 1967 is that there are a lot more people living in those at-risk areas than there were 50 years ago.
“Those forests continue right up to houses as far as you can see into the distance on the other side of the river and of course behind Hobart, there are now a lot more houses in the interface with the bush.
“If we had a similar situation today with similar weather conditions and fires all over the place like that, we would be not able to do much more than what happened there [in 1967].”
Mr Gledhill said the tall white dead eucalypts towering above the tree canopy on Mount Wellington stand as a warning.
“Look at those big white dead trees and remember that that whole mountain area burned, probably within about an hour and a half,” he said.
“Anyone living in or near the bush really needs to think long and hard about how they look after their property and make sure that their property is as fire safe as it possibly can be.”
Family builds fire bunker
On Monday night, residents of Fern Tree, on the slopes of Mount Wellington, gathered for a private reunion.
In 1967, the area took a heavy toll, with lives lost and many houses razed as fires approached on multiple fronts.
It was also one of the great tales of survival.
The car park at the Fern Tree Hotel was a central meeting point for more than 200 residents who managed to escape minutes before it was incinerated.
Five years ago, Karen Magraith and her husband Guy Bannink built a fire bunker at their Hobart bush property.
“When we moved here we became aware it was a high fire risk area and we were aware of the 1967 bushfires,” Ms Magraith said.
The concrete bunker took more than a year to build and has emergency supplies plus a medical air cylinder.
“People need to take responsibility for what they’re going to do,” she said.
“If it’s not safe to leave early, if there’s a lot of smoke on the roads or the potential for trees down or accidents, then we can stay here and we can stay safe here.”
In Tasmania, the construction of private bushfire shelters must adhere to strict building codes. The Tasmania Fire Service said it did not support or recommend their use.
Current generations urged not to forget past
A fire ecologist has warned Tasmanians to take the risk of major bushfire events more seriously to avoid a repeat of the devastation.
University of Tasmania professor David Bowman said today’s anniversary was a reminder of the need to fire-proof areas.
“Fifty years is a long time ago, it’s very easy to forget 1967 ever happened or it was something that was ancient history, it’s grandparents’ time,” he said.
“I’m concerned that the message still has not cut through to the general population.”
Professor Bowman said the community had to embrace more intensive land management.
“Certainly, the fire managers and the policy makers for fire and disaster management understand the risk, there’s no question of that,” he said.
He said the community lacked a desire for reform.
“It’s the hunger in the community to see real change, to make all of our bushland cities fire proof [and] fire safe. There’s not a community hunger,” he said.
“Having an appreciation in the community for planned burning, fuel management, mechanical clearing, possibly more radical interventions using animals to eat fuel.
“Also having a bushfire plan, clearing around the house and also more importantly retrofitting houses to be compliant.”
Study reinforces need to be fire ready
New research led by Professor Bowman has been published in the scientific journal Nature Ecology and Evolution today.
Researchers based in Australia and overseas created a database of 23 million fires over a 12-year period and then analysed the top 478 extreme fire events.
The study found extremely intense fires were linked to anomalous weather events including droughts and winds.
Professor Bowman said nearly a third of the events looked at occurred in regions where humans had built into flammable forested landscapes.
“Using climate change model projections to investigate the likely consequences of climate change, the research found more extreme fires are predicted in the future for Australia’s east coast, including Brisbane, and the whole of the Mediterranean region,” he said.
“The projections suggest an increase in the days conducive to extreme wildfire events by 20 to 50 per cent in these disaster-prone landscapes, with sharper increases in the subtropical southern hemisphere, and the European Mediterranean Basin.
“Our paper reinforces the major research and policy challenge of finding ways to optimise human community resilience to wildland fires and effectively live with landscapes prone to support extreme fire events.”
Professor Bowman has previously warned an event like the 1967 bushfires would happen again.
“Unfortunately for Tasmania we have the right mix for extreme events, the right population density, the right climate, the right vegetation,” he said.