Of huts, wildfires and pencil pines

Fires are still burning nearly a month after that fateful electrical storm of January 13 that spawned a series of blazes in the Mersey high country. Huge areas of forest and sub-alpine vegetation, amounting to 25,000 ha in one contiguous blaze from the Forth River to Lake Mackenzie and 1500 ha around Lake Bill, have been burnt. It was a hot fire penetrating into areas that have probably not seen a fire of such intensity for over millennia.

Most of the fires have now stopped running with fire fighting efforts now directed at mopping up active fire edges and ensuring that smouldering remains are well and truly extinguished. Access is still limited. Many roads remain closed due to risks from flare-ups and falling trees. Information on the impact of the fires on the historic huts and other assets in the fire area has therefore been incomplete. Nonetheless, we do now have some indication of losses. Reports from landowners indicate that beyond the loss of some outbuildings, there have been no losses of infrastructure on private property blocks around Dublin Plain, Pine Hut Plain, Arm River or Lees Paddocks. The Parks and Wildlife Service, however, has indicated that a certain amount of boardwalks, bridges and related bushwalker infrastructure in the national parks have been burnt and will take some time to replace.

But importantly, as of today (12 February), and following a recent Parks and Wildlife Service reconnaissance over the fire area, only two historic huts have been confirmed as destroyed. These are Boy Miles’ skin shed on Dublin Road and the plant hut associated with Basil Steers No 2 Hut on the February Plains.  A number of other historic sites, typically ruins or surface remains of older huts, have also been burnt.  A complete list of these sites has not been generated but will include sites such as Parsons Hut, Howells’ Yeates Lagoon Hut, Ritters Hut on Ritters Plain and various sites on the Kings Plain area of the February Plains. Any remaining wooden elements associated with these sites are likely to have been lost.

Overall though, given the scale and intensity of the fires, we are very fortunate that so few historic huts were lost.

Extent of burnt area as of 12 February, 2016. Tasmanian Fire Service mapping

The breadth of the country charred by the fires, and a growing appreciation of the scale of the environmental losses they have caused, has prompted some emerging community debate. I’d like to add to this discussion by describing what the loss of Boy Miles’ skin shed and the February Plains plant hut represents from a heritage perspective and then reflect on a couple of the wider issues the fires have prompted.

 

Boy Miles’ Skin Shed

Boy Miles began work around 1972 as a tree faller in the Mersey for Tasma Hardwoods, a sawmilling operation based in Ulverstone. At that time Tasma was harvesting a large coupe near Dublin Plain and set up a couple of transportable huts on Dublin Road for its workers to camp in during the week. Artie Johnston, the other faller Tasma employed, lived in the huts with his wife while Boy chose to stay in his brother’s hut at Dublin Plain.

When the Dublin coupe was cut out, the huts were transported to the Little Fisher where the next coupe was established. Johnston retired and Miles camped there in one of them. Tasma’s sawlog allocation ran out about 1976 and the company left the valley. Miles commandeered the huts organizing for one to be taken back to its original site on Dublin Road and the other up onto the edge of the Borradaile Plain.

Boy Miles' skin shed on Dublin Road prior to being burnt. Photo from Mountain Huts Preservation Society.

Miles, then employed as a faller for Rex Tuson, frequently camped in the Dublin Road hut. He built a bit of a garage onto it to house his Land Rover and, inveterate hunter that he was, erected a skin shed beside it. It was in the hut that Miles died in February 1978. A variety of people subsequently used it with it burning down sometime in the 1990s. The skin shed remained. It was in poor condition when I last visited it a few years ago. Be that as it may, its loss is significant. It was one of the few standing skin sheds that remained in Tasmania. As I explained in one of my early blogs (see ‘Why are Tasmanian skin sheds and snaring huts so important?’- 2 December 2013), these buildings are totally unique to Tasmania being not found anywhere else in the world.  We now have only perhaps half a dozen left most of which have been significantly modified.

 

The Plant Hut at Basil Steers No 2 Hut.

In 1974 Basil Steers, his brother Tony and their sons, Phillip and Don respectively, built a large snaring hut on a dry ridge just north of Kings Plain on the February Plains. Basil hunted from this hut with various friends and family for a number of years during the brief resurgence of the fur trade that occurred during the 1970s and early 1980s.

The hunting of game for the fur trade was tightly regulated.  A major control, designed to conserve species numbers, was a specified open season for each game species. It was not uncommon, however, for the season to be open for wallaby but not for possum. This created a real issue for hunters. Possum spend a great deal of time foraging on the ground and were frequently caught in wallaby snares. Legally, hunters were required to throw these possums away but in practice, with a good skin sometimes worth up to a day’s wage, they never did. As Basil Steers once said, ‘There was not a hunter has ever lived who has chucked a good possum away’. So what did they do with these ‘out of season’ skins? They dried them then hid then until the end of the season. Then, they would do a midnight flit where they carried these illegal skins out to a secret rendezvous with a dodgy skin buyer who would buy them.

It was an offence to be in possession of an out-of-season-skin so every hunter had a place where they were hidden in the event of a visit by a wildlife ranger. Hollow logs and rock shelters were frequently used. Basil went the extra mile and built a little hut not far from Basil Steers No 2 in which he hid his unlawful skins. He called it a ‘plant’ hut, based on the vernacular meaning of the word plant ‘to hide’. Given that few knew its location and the density of the forest around it, it had no chance in the face of the fire that rushed across the February Plains.

The plant hut associated with Basil Steers No 2 Hut, photo Simon Cubit, 2009.

This hut was the only known plant hut of which I knew.  How does one put a value on such a structure when it was the only known example of its type in the world? Its loss is disastrous.

 

Community Debate

Huts recognised as important

When faced with a fire and, generally, a limited ability to control it, authorities are invariably required to make decisions about what they need to protect and what takes precedence.  Human life is given the highest priority followed by property/ infrastructure and then important natural and cultural values. In the clamour of responding to rapidly evolving events on the ground and fires that were out of control, I was pleased to note the value fire fighters gave to historic huts. Both of Basil Steers’ huts on the February Plain would likely have burnt to the ground if not for deliberate back burns designed to protect them. So too the partially built but near Lake Mackenzie. It has not always been the case that mountain huts have been regarded as important by government authorities. I well remember the battles of the 1980s and 1990s when there was a movement, especially in conservation circles, to remove huts. That huts are now afforded value is because they are now clearly treasured by the wider community. I see it as the mark of a more confident, aware and mature society that the heritage values of these huts are now recognized.

 

How to protect pencil pines?

My second observation of the community response to the fires has been the concern about the loss of pencil pines (Athrotaxis cupressoides). This species is only found in Tasmania and is almost entirely limited in its range to the wider Central Plateau region. While research suggests they are capable of surviving a regime of infrequent low intensity fires, recent investigations shows that pencil pines suffered a largely irreversible population collapse following the severe 1960 Central Plateau fires. That fire led to a loss of around 10% of the geographic extent of pencil pine as a forest type and its replacement by a more flammable vegetation type. There has thus been a very real community concern that current fires may actually threaten pencil pines, one of the species for which the Central Plateau was afforded World Heritage status and a forest community so typical of Central Plateau viewfields.

The good news, if indeed such news can be good, is that of 29 January the fires had only burnt an additional 4% of the geographic range of pencil pines. For this information and the map below I am indebted to the work of forest ecologist and pencil pine specialist, Sam Wood.

It is clear, however, that we will need to review strategies to manage fire in sub alpine areas a task made more pressing in a world facing climate change. It is inevitable that more resources will be required and that multi-pronged approaches to fire management will need to be implemented. Conventional approaches such as fuel reduction burns will need to have a place as will the continuation of traditional grazing and burning strategies employed on private land holdings such as Dublin Plain and Lees Paddocks and on some State forest areas such as Borradaile Plain. I note suggestions that pencil pine seedlings should be grown in nurseries and replanted in the wild in an attempt to re-establish populations in areas where they have been removed by fire. Such left field suggestions should not be automatically dismissed. We need pragmatic responses if we are to protect and nurture a place that is so important to so many of us.