Record warmth in Australia during December 2019 was accompanied by record low rainfall over eastern Australia, and followed very much warmer than average and drier than average conditions across much of Australia through most of the year.
Almost all of Tasmania (TAS) recorded accumulated monthly forest fire danger indices (FFDI) in the highest 10 per cent of historical values for December, and much of the eastern half of the state recorded its highest-ever December FFDI on 30 December. Several locations recorded temperatures in the high 30s and low 40s that day, with several experiencing a temperature record for December.
TAS registered 406 lightning strikes that ignited dozens of bushfires that day, including a fire south of Pelham in the Upper Derwent Valley, 45 kilometres (km) north-west of Hobart. In extreme fire weather conditions, the fire spread rapidly southeast in dry forests and grasslands towards the rural communities of Elderslie and Broadmarsh.
One hundred and twenty firefighters from nearby communities, supported by water-bombing aircraft, responded quickly to protect 30 homes threatened that afternoon, although steep terrain in some sectors made firefighting difficult. A number of residents spent the night at an evacuation centre established in nearby Broadmarsh.
Within two days, the fire had grown to a perimeter of 26 km and had burnt out more than 1,300 hectares (ha) of farmland and forest, including two nature reserves. Several spot fires ahead of the main fire made it difficult to bring under control.
Firefighters, earth-moving equipment and aircraft supported by a multi-agency incident management team consolidated fire boundaries ahead of warmer weather expected later that week and by 11 January the fire, which ultimately burned over 2,100 ha and had a perimeter of 42 km, was considered safe. One home near Elderslie and a number of outbuildings, boats, machinery, 13 cars, a sawmill and a taxidermy business had been destroyed.
On the same day the bushfire started at Pelham, another was started, this time deliberately and despite a total fire ban, in north-east TAS near the village of Mangana in the Fingal Valley.
The fire spread rapidly south-east towards the township of Fingal, approaching to within a kilometre of the town in the early hours of the following day. Firefighters stopped the fire entering Fingal by backburning from the golf course to the town’s northwest. People living in the path of the fire were encouraged to leave, and tens of thousands of sheep were relocated to safe open paddocks near Fingal. Several dozen residents threatened by the fire used evacuation centres established at Fingal and nearby St Marys, with the St Marys hospital also providing beds for evacuees.
By the following day, the fire had grown to 4,000 ha and was burning in pine plantations to Fingal’s north when a significant spot fire started in difficult terrain on Mt Malcolm to the township’s south. This new fire put $150 million (m) worth of coal deposits and mining infrastructure at risk on Fingal’s eastern outskirts, and long range weather forecasts indicated that the Douglas Apsley National Park would be under threat in coming days.
Over the next three weeks, several hundred firefighters supported by tankers, machinery and aircraft continued to fight both fires in eucalypt forests and pine plantations to Fingal’s north, east and south. The fires eventually burnt 22,000 ha of plantation (valued at $70m) and bushland, and destroyed one dwelling. Mangana residents were not able to return home until 7 January, once the village was deemed safe.
Over the course of the 2019–20 bushfire season, an estimated 36,000 ha burned in TAS.
Australian Government disaster recovery payments were offered to eligible people impacted by the Pelham and Fingal fires.