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Working in Tasmania stories

Ancient ash inspires fire plan

Edition 190_Maynard

A core sample taken from a secluded lake on lungtalanana/Clarke Island in Bass Strait suggests Aboriginal people were using fire management there at least 41,000 years ago.

The discovery inspired leading fire ecologist David Bowman to propose a revival of ancient practices to make life in modern Tasmania safer.

Only a few weeks after the core was taken on Clarke Island there was a successful real-world test of Professor Bowman's concept on truwana/Cape Barren Island.

One volunteer, Terry Maynard, said the experience of using ancestral cool-burning methods to lower bushfire risk on the island made him feel "10 feet tall".

And there is economic potential to go with enhanced community safety and Aboriginal cultural pride.

By burning areas of the Arafura Swamp (nearly as big as Tasmania) at the start of the dry season, Northern Territory Aborigines prevent much bigger fires flaring up when the country dries out.

Reduced carbon emissions are recognised and paid for under Commonwealth carbon-abatement programs and the locals call this new income stream "smoke money".

"It's a beautiful example of Indigenous knowledge [creating] a market and an industry," the Chief Executive of Arnhem Land Fire Abatement, Jennifer Ansell, said.

At the other end of the nation, the Tasmanian Aboriginal Centre invited Professor Bowman of UTAS and the Professor of Natural History at the Australian National University in Canberra, Simon Haberle, to Clarke Island.

The landscape had been hit hard by an intense bushfire in 2014.

As expected, a core sample from the lake contained charcoal and pollen, enabling the scientists to reconstruct the island's fire history.

They were able to determine how often vegetation had been burnt and how intensely it had burnt over thousands of years.

Professor Bowman said: "We found a lake which had superb organic sediments in the base and we assumed that they were just from the last 10,000 years.

"We radiocarbon dated the sediments and we discovered, to our amazement, that these sediments actually stretch back [beyond] 40,000 years.

Professor Haberle said the dating suggested fire management had been introduced to the island at least 41,000 years ago.

The core sample showed how fire regimes on Clarke Island had changed substantially over the ensuing time.

"Part of that change was really due to the landscape management activities of Tasmanian Aboriginal people as they lived on those islands and used fire as a tool to manage the landscape," Professor Haberle said.

"What we see is that over most of the period of the record, frequent and low-intensity fires occurred on the island.

"This can really only happen through regular burning of the vegetation, most likely because of people lighting those fires and managing the landscape."

In his book The Biggest Estate on Earth, Adjunct Professor Bill Gammage, AO, built a powerful case for the concept of Aboriginal modification of Australia's landscape through controlled burning.

The Australian National University academic postulated — and provided impressive evidence for —his argument that there had been little wilderness in Australia in 1788.

The majority of the landscape that settlers described as "parklike", in fact, reflected a successful and sensitive land-management regime that had been implemented by uncounted generations across the fire-prone Australian landmass.

Fire was not simply a tool of fuel reduction or grass promotion, but was employed to ensure certain plants and animals flourished.

Plant and animal resources were kept abundant, convenient and predictable.

Professor Haberle said bushfires had become more intense on Clarke Island after Tasmanian Aboriginal people had left.

"When Europeans arrive there is a change in the fire regime and there are many very strong fires and, in many cases, catastrophic fires have occurred in the recent past," he said.

"Those fires are a result of ... changes in the land-management strategy."

Professor Bowman said: "Scientists have looked at various sediment traps, but nothing really of such quality and time depth in southern Australia. We are terribly excited about this core."

Andry Sculthorpe of the TAC's project team said: "Fire is something that was always used by Aboriginal people to shape the environment and to keep country healthy."

Professor Bowman said traditional low-intensity burning should play a greater role in today's fire mitigation in Tasmania.

"This would be, I think, a really great aspiration for Tasmania — to help a group of people who have had their culture disrupted by colonisation to rekindle their traditions and actually serve their society — our society — by making flammable, dangerous environments much safer," he said.

"This is getting quite urgent now because of the deteriorating climate conditions.

"We must learn from the past, we must learn from the first Australians.

"They obviously did something very clever, that they were able to sustainably coexist in a very flammable environment."

Even before Professor Bowman's proposal, the Tasmanian Fire Service (TFS) had been working with volunteer Truwana Rangers on Cape Barren Island to investigate the potential of integrating ancient and modern fire-management skills.

The Tasmanian Aboriginal Centre had been rekindling traditional burning on its land for about three years, leading up to the October trial on the island which had been handed back to the 600-strong Aboriginal community by the Tasmanian Government in 2005.

Volunteer ranger Terry Maynard told the ABC: "We've gone up to the Top End and learnt from the traditional burners up there how to 'cool burn' properly, so we can regenerate our land."

The TFS has been teaching the rangers about fire behaviour and the rangers have been teaching the TFS what they have learned about the "cool burn" techniques.

The rangers recently took part in remote-area fire-fighting training with the TFS in Launceston, learning various skills, including first aid and helicopter-assisted fire-fighting.

Two TFS personnel were involved in the experimental October burn-off.

Paul Catrell from the TFS told the ABC: "The fires that we've had here in the past have been quite destructive because the vegetation has been able to build up over a period of time."

He said the mosaic-style of "cultural burning" would help protect the community by reducing fuel loads as summer approaches.

Over 10 years, bushfires had burnt huge sections of the 4,370ha island which sits just south of Flinders Island, off the north-eastern tip of the Tasmanian mainland.

"You can go back in history and you can see that by doing this sort of practice that it stops those intensely devastating fires from occurring," Mr Catrell said.

"They know the weather patterns, they know the country, they know the fuel types, they know what they want to protect."

A "cool burn" fire is designed to move quickly through undergrowth without damaging plant roots or the earth. It helps native plants regenerate.

Mr Maynard said: "Instead of letting the hot fires go through, we've got to try to heal our land with cool burns, so we can get our land back to how it was."

The TFS hopes the Truwana Rangers can become first responders to fires not only on Cape Barren, but also on other nearby islands.

Fighting fires on remote islands is expensive, so having the rangers on site could be a big cost-saver and the volunteer rangers say they find the role empowering.

Mr Maynard said: "It's really important now that we've had the land handed back to show people off-the-island how we can look after our land and that we want to."

So a 41,000-year-old story may still have some time to unfold.

Footnote: The carbon dating of fire sediments on Clarke Island is, potentially, the oldest hard evidence yet of human presence in Tasmania.

Image courtesy of the ABC

5 December 2017, Edition 190

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Facts about Tasmania


Tasmania is the southernmost state of Australia, located at latitude 40° south and longitude 144° east and separated from the continent by Bass Strait. It is a group of 334 islands, with the main island being 315 km (180 miles) from west to east and 286 km (175 miles) north to south.


Tasmanians are resourceful and innovative people, committed to a continually expanding export sector. In 2012–13, international exports from the state totalled $3.04 billion. USA, China, Taiwan, India, Japan and other Asian countries account for the bulk of exports, with goods and services also exported to Europe and many other regions.


Tasmania is similar in size to the Republic of Ireland or Sri Lanka. The Tasmanian islands have a combined coastline of more than 3,000 km.


The main island has a land area of 62,409 sq km (24,096 sq miles) and the minor islands, taken together, total only 6 per cent of the main island’s land area. The biggest islands are Flinders (1,374 sq km/539 sq miles), King, Cape Barren, Bruny and Macquarie Islands.


About 250km (150 miles) separates Tasmania’s main island from continental Australia. The Kent Group of Islands, one of the most northerly parts of the state, is only 55km (34 miles) from the coast of the Australian continent.


Twice named ‘Best Temperate Island in the World’ by international travel magazine Conde Nast Traveler, Tasmania has a mild, temperate maritime climate, with four distinct seasons.


In summer (December to February) the average maximum temperature is 21° Celsius (70° Fahrenheit). In winter (June to August) the average maximum is 12° C (52° F) and the average minimum is 4° C (40° F). Snow often falls in the highlands, but is rarely experienced in more settled areas.

Annual Rainfall

Tasmania’s west coast is one of the wettest places in the world, but the eastern part of the State lives in a rain-shadow. Hobart, the second-driest capital city in Australia, receives about half as much rain as Sydney.

Annual Rainfall

Annual rainfall in the west is 2,400 mm (95 inches), but hardy locals insist there is no such thing as bad weather, only inadequate clothing. If you travel 120 km east to Hobart, you experience a much drier average of 626 mm (24 inches) a year.


The 512,875-strong community spreads itself across the land; less urbanised than the population of any other Australian state. Hobart, the capital city, is home to more than 212,000 people.

Capital City

Hobart nestles at the foot of kunanyi / Mount Wellington (1,270 m / 4,000 ft) and overlooks the Derwent Estuary, where pods of dolphins and migrating whales are sometimes seen from nearby beaches. Surrounded by thickly forested rolling hills, the city is home to the state parliament and the main campus of the University of Tasmania.

Capital City

Its historic centre features Georgian and Regency buildings from colonial times. Hobart is home port for coastal fishing boats, Antarctic expeditions and vessels that fish the Southern Ocean.

Land Formation

Mountain ranges in the south-west date back 1,000 million years. Ancient sediments were deeply buried, folded and heated under enormous pressure to form schists and glistening white quartzites.

Land Formation

In the south-west and central highlands, dolerite caps many mountains, including Precipitous Bluff and Tasmania’s highest peak, Mt Ossa (1617 m / 5300 ft). More than 42 per cent of Tasmania is World Heritage Area, national park and marine or forest reserves.


Vegetation is diverse, from alpine heathlands and tall open eucalypt forests to areas of temperate rainforests and moorlands, known as buttongrass plains. Many plants are unique to Tasmania and the ancestors of some species grew on the ancient super-continent, Gondwana, before it broke up 50 million years ago.


Unique native conifers include slow-growing Huon pines, with one specimen on Mt Read estimated to be up to 10,000 years old. Lomatia tasmanica, commonly known as King’s holly, is a self-cloning shrub that may well be the oldest living organism on earth. It was discovered in 1937.


Tasmania is the last refuge of several mammals that once roamed the Australian continent. It is the only place to see a Tasmanian devil or eastern quoll (native cat) in the wild and is the best place to see the spotted-tailed quoll (tiger cat), all carnivorous marsupials.


The eastern bettong and the Tasmanian pademelon, both now extinct on the Australian continent, may also be observed.


The Tasmanian tiger, or thylacine, was Australia’s largest surviving carnivorous marsupial and is a modern day mystery. The last documented thylacine died in captivity in 1936 and although the animal is considered extinct, unsubstantiated sightings persist.

History and Heritage

Aboriginal people have lived in Tasmania for about 35,000 years, since well before the last Ice Age. They were isolated from the Australian continent about 12,000 years ago, when the seas rose to flood low coastal plains and form Bass Strait.

History and Heritage

Descendants of the original people are part of modern Tasmania’s predominantly Anglo-Celtic population.

History and Heritage

Tasmania was originally named Van Dieman’s Land by the Dutch explorer Abel Janszoon Tasman in 1642. The island was settled by the British as a penal colony in 1803 and the original name was associated with the convict era. It was changed to Tasmania when convict transportation stopped in 1853.


A resourceful island culture has generated leading-edge niche industries, from production of high-speed catamaran ferries and marine equipment to lightning-protection technology.


Tasmanians produce winches and windlasses for some of the world’s biggest ocean-going pleasure craft; large-scale inflatable evacuation systems and provide specialist outfit-accommodation services to the marine industry.


The Wooden Boat Centre at Shipwrights Point has re-established the skills and traditions of another age and attracts students from around the world.


Tasmania is a world leader in natural turf systems for major sporting arenas and in areas of mining technology and environmental management. Its aquaculture industry has developed ground-breaking fish-feeding technology and new packaging.


Tasmanians sell communications equipment to many navies and their world-class fine timber designers and craftsmen take orders internationally for furniture made from distinctive local timber.


The state is a natural larder with clean air, unpolluted water and rich soils inviting the production of 100 varieties of specialty cheeses, as well as other dairy products, mouth-watering rock lobsters, oysters, scallops and abalone, Atlantic salmon, beef, premium beers, leatherwood honey, mineral waters, fine chocolates, fresh berry fruits, apples and crisp vegetables.


Tasmania is a producer of award-winning cool-climate wines, beers, ciders and whiskies. Other export products include essential oils such as lavender, pharmaceutical products and premium wool sought after in Europe and Asia. Hobart is a vital gateway to the Antarctic and a centre for Southern Ocean and polar research.


The industries in Tasmania which made the greatest contribution to the State’s gross product in 2010–11 in volume terms were: Manufacturing (9.4%), Health care and social assistance (8.2%), Financial and insurance services (7.2%), Ownership of dwellings and Agriculture, forestry and fishing (each 7.1%).

Getting to Tasmania

Travel is easy, whether by air from Sydney or Melbourne, or by sea, with daily sailings of the twin ferries Spirit of Tasmania 1 and 2 each way between Melbourne and Devonport throughout the year.

This site has been produced by the Brand Tasmania Council © 2014

Brand Tasmania

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