Not for the first time, a war is being fought over Tasmania's world heritage wilderness. This time, as more than 30 fires continue to burn across the state, it is being fought from the air.
Tasmanian Liberal Premier Will Hodgman and environmental groups last week each enlisted aircraft to shoot footage and get word out on the scale of the damage to internationally protected landscapes.
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Tasmanian fires: burning on both fronts
Not for the first time, a war is being fought over Tasmania's world heritage wilderness. This time, as more than 20 fires continue to burn across the state, it is being fought from the air. Courtesy Greenpeace and The Wilderness Society.
From Hodgman's perspective, the answer is much less than you've been told.
For Greenpeace and the Wilderness Society, it is much more than you might imagine.
Tasmania has been on fire since January 13, when a lightning storm hit the state. Off the back of the driest spring on record and a hotter than average summer, the landscape was ready to burn. Four weeks on, more than 100,000 hectares have been razed, including up to 20,000 hectares of the vast, UN-endorsed protected area that makes up a fifth of the state.
For Hodgman, the fires have had a "devastating impact", but the extent of the damage has been distorted.
He says the fire has burned about 1.2 per cent of the world heritage zone: "not insignificant, but it could have been much worse".
On Wednesday, Hodgman took to the air in a helicopter chartered by Rob Sherrard, a co-founder of Virgin Australia and now an owner of Tasmania Walking Company, which offers high-end tours through pristine wilderness areas.
Full disclosure: the five passengers included two from Fairfax Media – this reporter and a photographer. We were asked along to document that the Overland Track, a 65-kilometre trek through stunning world heritage wilderness between Cradle Mountain and Lake St Clair in the state's central north-west, was safe for hikers.
This is true. Charting a path from Hobart to Cradle Mountain and then further north to Burnie, we saw only occasional patches of burnt land. The track is untouched by fire.
The pilot navigated a tight path through forest to land on a tiny platform next to a cabin owned by Sherrard's company. There, we met a group of trekkers three days into a six-day hike. While a ragu prepared by guides simmered on the cabin stove, the hikers – all from interstate – said they had some concerns and hadn't known what to expect after hearing about the fires. They had seen and experienced no problems.
The Premier presented some with new walking boots, then noted there had been reports by some tourist companies of cancellations. He stressed tourists had nothing to worry about.
"I think it's understandable that people across the world would be anxious to know we're doing all we can to protect our precious areas," he said. "The threat is still ongoing, but Tasmania's tourism industry, particularly in our magnificent world heritage area and the national parks, is well and true open."
Coincidentally, the following day, Greenpeace and the Wilderness Society released a 10-minute video shot mostly over alpine landscapes at Lake Mackenzie and Devils Gullet, on the state's central plateau, scarred black and orange.
There was also some footage of fire in the Tarkine, an area that environmentalists want included in the protected area.
The aerial shots near Lake Mackenzie match the photos of blackened pencil and king billy pines and cushion plants first published by Fairfax Media two weeks ago.
Fire ecologists say the dead trees – some more than 1000 years old – are part of a confined, Gondwana-era ecosystem unique to Tasmania that in some cases has never burned before.
It is these pictures that fuelled warnings that the alpine ecosystem could be completely lost within decades unless more was done to protect it, given the increased risk of fire due to climate change. They led to renewed calls for deeper cuts in greenhouse gas emissions.
Greenpeace forests campaigner Jessica Panegyres said the organisation was not trying to deter tourists, but wanted to document the damage fire was doing to a globally important landscape. It was worse than she had expected.
"This is a global tragedy that deserves attention," she said. "Many of these trees are not meant to burn. We just really wanted people to be able to see for themselves what is happening."
The footage may not have been aimed at Hodgman and his government, but he responded angrily. "It's damn ordinary that you've got environmental activists almost gleefully capitalising on images, naturally caused, which could inflict significant damage on our brand, our reputation," he told reporters back in Hobart.
So who's right? Arguably, both. The proportion of the world heritage area that has burned is small when compared with the full 15,800 square kilometres, and the Overland Track is fine. But scientists say the alpine ecosystem destroyed will be lost for centuries, perhaps forever, and there's only so much of it. More generally, world heritage landscape is not supposed to be lost.
The Premier said the role of climate change would be included in reviews of the fire response. He pointed to the extraordinary number of lightning strikes that started the blazes. "We received advice of 1000 strikes on one day. The highest recorded in previous years was more like 19," he said.
"I think it is a reminder to us all that our conditions – our climate – is changing, is more volatile, and obviously we rely on the experts and scientists to provide us with advice."