Ancient alpine ecosystems unique to Tasmania's remote world heritage wilderness, including trees that lived for more than a millennium, have been killed by fires that scientists say are linked to climate change.
The first images of the damage on the state's central plateau have triggered calls for governments to do more to protect internationally recognised landscapes as part of their fire response.
Taken on Saturday near Lake Mackenzie at an altitude of about 1200 metres, the photographs show pencil and king billy pines and cushion plants scorched after lightning strikes on January 13. Some are estimated to be 1500 years old.
Unlike eucalypt forests, these plants are destroyed by fire and will not regenerate. Historically, they have not burned naturally.
Fire ecologist David Bowman said western Tasmania was a "geological refuge" that had survived since Australia was part of Gondwana, the supercontinent that included Antarctica and South America and broke up about 180 million years ago.
"This is like torching a wilderness calendar, or threatening to destroy an art gallery filled with pictures by [celebrated photographer] Peter Dombrovskis," he said.
"We're talking about the landscapes you see on the Overland Track that take you back in deep time."
Professor Bowman said that in terms of its importance it would be "like losing the thylacine if we allow this stuff to go extinct."
Landscape photographer Rob Blakers, who has bushwalked in the area for more than three decades, said the damage he found was worse than expected.
"It was just black and grey, and skeletons and that's all there is," he said.
"In many places you can see rocks that before the fire would have been covered with a foot of organic peat soil."
The fire is not the worst in living memory to hit the central plateau of the Tasmanian Wilderness World Heritage Area. Most notably, graziers killed a significant area in 1960-61 because the tussocks that grew after fire made good livestock food.
But Professor Bowman said the latest fire was different.
When bushfires hit the Blue Mountains in October 2013 he was wary of linking them to man-made climate change due to the large historic variability in Australian fire seasons, but understanding of fire ecology had developed rapidly, and scientists were now more confident global warming was increasing fire risk.
"This is completely consistent with predictions. It was lit by lightning and it is incredibly dry and warm in western Tasmania by historic standards," he said.
"I think I would be being unethical and unprofessional if I didn't form the diagnosis and say what it is – climate change. Under the current rate of warming I think this ecosystem will be gone in 50 years."
Scientists and environmentalists have called for more resources to be put into fighting remote wildfires soon after they were lit.
Wilderness Society campaign manager Vica Bayley said the response to the more than 80 fires in Tasmania this year had been laudable, particularly the protection of lives and property. But he said there were lessons to be learnt.
"We need at national level a more rapid response remote firefighting capacity," he said.
"The loss of world heritage areas is tragic and we have to not let it happen again. This is the new normal and we have to respond."
He said in addition to the world heritage area's natural values, fire had threatened four sites used to market Tasmania – Cradle Mountain, the Walls of Jerusalem, Mt Anne and the Overland Track.
More than 70 fires were still ablaze in Tasmania on Sunday, mostly in the state's north-west, though the immediate risk to people, property and the central plateau had been dampened by heavy rain.
The story ‘Like losing the thylacine’: Fire burns Tasmanian Wilderness World Heritage Area first appeared on The Sydney Morning Herald.