Tasmanian government ignored warnings of devastating bushfires

Tasmanian government ignored warnings of devastating bushfires

17 October 2013

published by www.theaustralian.com.au

Australia — LEAKED cabinet documents show Tasmania’s government ignored warnings there would be major wildfires without dramatically expanded fuel-reduction burns and cast doubt on official explanations for the decision.

Several submissions, obtained by The Australian, show the Labor government in March 2011 deferred a decision on a call from its Fire Management Council for a new fuel-reduction unit, funded with $25.7 million.

This is despite the submission being strongly argued by then emergency management minister, Lin Thorp, and including an explicit warning from all three of the state’s fire-fighting agencies that failure to act could lead to disaster.

Ms Thorp informed the Labor-Greens cabinet that the State Fire Commission, Parks and Wildlife Service and Forestry Tasmania all “believe that the risk of wildfires, and fire-fighting costs, will continue to escalate in future years” unless the reforms were embraced.

Instead, the government deferred the plan, allocating just $900,000, while Ms Thorp’s plan to conduct “extensive burning in the autumn of 2012” did not eventuate.

Months later, in early January of this year, catastrophic bushfires wiped out 400 homes and other buildings, devastated the town of Dunalley, killed 10,000 head of livestock, left thousands of evacuees trapped on a peninsula, and cost the state $100m.

The official inquiry into the January fires released on Monday found failings at virtually all levels, including inadequate and confused emergency management, poor communications and “delays” to fuel reduction burns.

“The delay in introducing an effective fuel-reduction burning program should be disappointing for many people,” said inquiry chief Mal Hyde, in his final report.

Mr Hyde said expanding co-ordinated fuel reduction burns “should occur as a high priority” and that while some interests may oppose the move, “the protection of life should be the highest value and priority”.

The leaked cabinet documents show Ms Thorp proposed just such an expanded program back in March 2011 — and made many of the same arguments.

Premier Lara Giddings has previously argued the submission lacked detail and rigour, was based on “one-size-fits-all”, “largely on Victorian conditions” and on a 5 per cent Victorian fuel reduction target that might not apply to Tasmania’s topography.

However, the submission is very detailed, including information about Tasmanian vegetation types and land tenures and is not based on the Victorian 5 per cent target — or any target.

Ms Giddings said yesterday her department had wanted information on “landscape-scale” burning, the likely reduction in risks that would result, environmental and carbon impacts, and the views of community groups. However, the Thorp submission addresses all of these points in detail, arguing the increased burns on 2.57 million hectares of dry woodlands, forest and heath would reduce intense wildfires, better protecting natural values and carbon stores.

Scott Griffith has almost finished rebuilding a house on their block and has lived the past 10 months between a borrowed shack and a caravan. Many others in Dunalley and Boomer Bay are also still living in sheds and caravans; others have left.

Mr Griffith was among a number of residents warning much of the region, particularly further south on the Tasman Peninsula, still had very high fuel loads.

“I feel for people that didn’t get burnt because apparently it’s going to be hot again this year and the places that missed out are sitting here a year later when it (the vegetation) is a lot drier and denser,” he said.

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