AUSTRALIA – For weeks, bushfires have been ravaging Tasmania.
Almost every day more warnings spring up, new areas are on alert.
It’s easy to get warning fatigue, and, with only a handful or properties impacted so far, dismiss the fires as all bark and no bite.
But satellite images reveal the scale of the destruction so far.
The Gell River blaze, in the state’s south-west, was the first to start, ignited by a dry lightning strike in late December.
“It seems really like ancient history,” professor of pyrogeography and fire service at the University of Tasmania David Bowman said.
“It started at the end of last year and escalated in early January, so we’re looking at a fire situation that’s now gone for a full calendar month.”
Images taken by the European Space Agency’s Sentinel-2 satellite on January 3 show what seems, relative to the lakes around it, like a small blackened patch of wilderness.
Infrared emissions highlighted in bright orange show active fire fronts and hotspots.
By January 8, that small blackened area had morphed.
The Gell River fire is still burning, and this week destroyed Churchill’s Hut — a historic trapper’s shed named after Elias Churchill, who captured the last Tasmanian tiger.
This image, captured on January 30, shows a more recent footprint, and the smoke it’s still sending billowing over nearby towns.
The Gell River blaze would have been enough for firefighters to contend with.
Already, it was proving challenging to curtail.
Specialist remote-area firefighters were flown in to try to contain the blaze, which was settling into rugged, inaccessible terrain.
But a series of lightning storms set off another chain. When the storms hit in mid-January, Tasmanians gawked at them with a nervous curiosity.
They shared videos and photos to social media, showing lightning flashes peppering the sky.
And that could have been it, if the state wasn’t suffering through its driest January on record.
“Usually dry lightning isn’t a significant factor in starting bushfires because the vegetation was traditionally too moist,” Professor Bowman said.
“But certainly the coupling of dry lightning with dry vegetation has created an increase in both the number and the area burned.”
New fires sprung up across the state, notably on the Central Plateau, and in the south near the Tahune forest.
“If you have a more normal bushfire situation, it’s just the one fire,” Professor Bowman said.
“There are multiple major fire events occurring simultaneously, which is extremely challenging for firefighters and fire managers because of the requirement to spread resources and make very difficult prioritising decisions.”
On January 20, the Central Plateau fire burning near Great Lake was already showing its might.
Aggressive and ready to strike, it claimed one property — the Skittle Ball Plains Homestead, a fishing retreat — on January 22.
By January 28 it seemed to have grown in every direction, destroying the wilderness around it.
“This is definitely a historic event, it’s unprecedented,” Professor Bowman said.
“The area burnt is very substantial, I can barely keep up with the numbers.”
This week the fire service did put a number on it — 187,000 hectares.
At the same time as the Central Plateau fire ramped up, the Tahune fire was also burning out of control.
Of all the fires burning across Tasmania, this one has caused the most displacement, forcing hundreds of people to evacuate from communities in the Huon Valley south of Hobart.
Since last week, firefighters have issued almost daily warnings to residents, cautioning that only those prepared to defend their properties should stay behind.
A satellite image taken on January 30 shows how the fire, having burnt through more than 56,000 hectares, was still sending smoke over towns to its east.
“This fire event is totally natural in one sense because it started by lightning,” Professor Bowman said.
“There really isn’t any significant rain on the horizon, and that’s a real problem because this week is classically the peak fire season.
“We can all remember the 7th February 1967 was the greatest historical fire crisis in Tasmanian history, and it was also the same day for Black Saturday, and we haven’t even reached those first two weeks of February.
“Each day that we’re not getting rain is a ratchet which means the intensity of the fires will increase, and the scale of the fires will increase.
“We’re using the term ‘fire crisis’ and that’s not an exaggeration.”