The Fire Scientist: A chat with Professor David Bowman

I’ve been wanting to sink my teeth into a long term photo-journalistic piece of work for some time now. Following on from the image I took of Dale ‘Hairyman’ Fullard for the Resilient Australia Awards, I think I’ve finally found the story I’ve been looking to tell. I’m going to expand on the portrait I took of Dale and gather more images and stories from as many different people as I can, in relation to bushfires in Tasmania.

This evening I had the pleasure of chatting with Professor David Bowman, he is an expert in the field of Pyrogeography and Fire Science at the University of Tasmania and the Director of the Fire Centre. We took a stroll up into Knocklofty Reserve in Hobart and chatted about his work and the conditions of the bush around this part of the city.

So much of the science we see in the media feels so distant, like it’s been gathered from a lab far away and I think that makes it more difficult for people to relate to it and understand it within the context of their own environment. We’ve also seen an abhorrent backlash against science, sadly brought about by the very people who should be championing it and using the information to protect us and the generations to come. I feel that’s a whole blog post in itself right there so I’ll digress no further haha.

Professor Bowman took me to a spot on Knocklofty where he’s been carrying out a little experiment/observation of the water levels in a small pond. He puts a stick into the mud on the waterline every few weeks and the results have caused some alarm. The pond was completely dry over the Winter, only filling up again in August/September when we had heavy rains. It is now rapidly drying out once more as we approach Summer and peak bushfire danger. When the fires hit Tasmania earlier this year, the water levels were higher then they are now….As a barometer for the dryness of the bush surrounding the city, it has Professor Bowman’s attention.

Elsewhere along the path/fire break that separates this very dry bush from people’s homes, Professor Bowman pointed out some Tasmanian Blanketleaf looking a little worse for wear. It does well in moist soils and clearly the soil on Knocklofty is anything but that right now. Above us, the crowns of the Eucalyptus trees are also looking a little drab and under duress environmentally speaking.

With wet rainforest being burnt in New South Wales recently and similar ecologies burning here in Tasmania earlier this year, the old adage of “That will never burn, never has” seems a more and more dangerous mindset than ever. Tasmania’s fire season, although underway already with a number of fires in recent weeks won’t peak until January/February next year.

The 1967 Black Tuesday fires killed 62 people and destroyed 1293 homes and over 1700 other buildings in Hobart and surrounding areas. The fires also burned 80 bridges, 4800 sections of power lines, 1500 motor vehicles and over 100 other structures. It was estimated that at least 62,001 farm animals were killed. Since then, 3700 properties have been built in that same fire path. The population has grown by almost 100,000 and far more of that population is living in the urban/vegetation interface.

Of course fire fighting techniques have improved since then along with land management practices, construction standards and of course vastly improved weather forecasting and modelling but the risks certainly remain. Professor Bowman and his colleagues are rightly concerned about the potential for a repeat of the 1967 fires and scarily it seems to be a matter of when, not if, that might just happen.

Professor David Bowman kneeling down next to a pond on Knocklofty Reserve, Hobart.
Professor David Bowman next to the pond on Knocklofty Reserve where he has observed drops in water levels recently.
Sticks in the mud next to a pond used to observe water levels
Professor Bowman’s stick observations showing the lowering water levels over time. Sometimes it’s the simplest observations that can be the most informative.
Pond on Knocklofty Reserve
The pond in question at the edge of the Knocklofty Reserve with greater Hobart visible through the trees.

Further Reading

Hobart Area Fire Management Plan

News article on bushfire risks to Hobart

Recent interview with Professor Bowman

A piece Professor Bowman wrote on the 1967 Hobart fires

Professor Bowman urges immediate action to prepare Hobart for future fire dangers

67 Bushfire Stories: A comprehensive collection of video interviews, images and written accounts of the Black Tuesday fires.

3 thoughts on “The Fire Scientist: A chat with Professor David Bowman

  1. Thanks for sending me the report on your discussion with the pyrographer (?). Predictive text doesnt know the term! Following up a piece I wrote years ago on the efforts by explorers to take the Northwest Passage in the Arctic, I’m finding out more about fires in the Canadian arctic and the tundra. Will send you links.

    1. Hi Maurice, it’s a fairly new field of Science being spearheaded by Professor Bowman and his team that looks at fire in relation to the landscape and ecology. Very interesting stuff with the catch 22 of there being lots of data to work with in recent months but data related to devastating loss of life and ecologies.

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