How Tasmanian prepared for a bushfire season in the middle of the COVID-19 pandemic

08 November 2020

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AUSTRALIA – Tasmania’s 2019-20 bushfire season was relatively uneventful compared to what happened across the Bass Strait.

The mainland experienced its worst bushfire season in history with millions of hectares of land burnt, homes destroyed and 75 people losing their lives.

Tragically that included 13 Country Firefighting Authority firefighters from Victoria, three CFA firefighters from South Australia and one casual firefighter.

About three billion animals are also assumed to have died during the summer fires.

In Tasmania, fires around the East Coast town of Fingal burnt about 30,000 hectares and destroyed one house. With that aside, it was a relatively calm fire season for the state.

However, Tasmania is no stranger to serious bushfire threats. In 2016 more than 100,000 hectares of World Heritage reserves were burnt across the Central Highlands, West Coast and South-West.

Tasmania’s fire season usually starts in November, but according to the Bushfire and Natural Hazards CRC, the start could be delayed due to wetter than average weather bought about the La Nina.

La Nina is a change in ocean temperatures which affects the global weather pattern and is likely to bring more rain to most parts of Tasmania.

What is La Nina? Video explainer:

The South-West region of the state is the only portion expected to receive normal or below average rainfall over this summer period.

Even with the wetter weather, temperatures are expected to be above average this year which could add to fire risk later on in the season.

In its September to November bushfire outlook the BNHCRC found that risks across much of Tasmania were at normal levels. It said the situation would be monitored closely.

Three government organisations are responsible for bushfire preparation in Tasmania – Sustainable Timbers Tasmania, the Parks and Wildlife Service and the Tasmanian Fire Service.

TFS chief officer Chris Arnol said the organisation was expecting a normal bushfire season this year.

He said it was important for people not to become complacent due to wet weather.

“We are anticipating a ‘normal’ bushfire season, which means we will have bushfires, albeit potentially later in summer than usual,” Mr Arnol said.

“With the rainy days and the soils still damp, it can be easy for people to become complacent about the threat of bushfire.

“The threat is still very real, with rainfall causing grasses and fine fuels to grow which will dry out in summer and create a bushfire hazard.”

In preparation for the fire season the TFS, STT and Parks carry out fuel reduction burns across the state. Mr Arnol said this year they had conducted 186 burns.

He said the TFS was in the process of training 30 new volunteer firefighters in order to improve remote firefighting capabilities.

PWS acting state fire manager Katy Edwards said the service was also in the process of training staff members.

She said in preparation for the season they took on additional staff, raising their crew numbers to 37.

“We increase our fire crew numbers up to 37 and then they are supported by our field centre staff,” Ms Edwards said.

“At the moment we have 130 people who are able to go and fight fires for us, plus people who are trained to respond to incidents [as part] of incident management teams.”

Ms Edwards said the wet weather through spring had helped get more fuel reduction burns completed before the start of fire season.

But the COVID-19 pandemic had proved to be a double edged sword.

“We have had to change the way we operate, but it also created some opportunities while the parks were closed to be able to undertake some burns while we didn’t have visitors in the area,” Ms Edwards said.

Mr Arnol agreed that the COVID-19 pandemic had created an interesting situation for firefighters and bushfire preparations.

“The COVID-19 pandemic has posed some interested challenges to fire services around the country, with plans in place should the use of interstate resources be required,” he said.

“COVID safety plans will also be implemented at all sites and during firefighting operations.”

STT fire management manager Dean Sheehan said the pandemic had impacted their preparation, but hadn’t hindered it.

He said the organisation has primary responsibility for controlling and extinguishing fires across permanent timber production forests, along with other responsibilities associated with fire preparation and management across the state.

“We not only fight fires on our own land, but we also fight fires on other land as well. We assist the parks and TFS there and we also at times deploy staff to the mainland to assist over there when they need,” Mr Sheehan said.

Mr Sheehan said the organisation conducted planned and fuel reduction burns to help prepare for fire season and to regenerate harvested areas.

He said it was important for anyone who was using fire to remain vigilant, regardless of where they are in Tasmania.

“It doesn’t matter where you are on any given day with the right conditions you may have trouble with fire,” Mr Sheehan said.

University of Tasmania senior research fellow and fire ecology expert Dr Grant Williamson said an increasing bushfire risk would become a part of normal life, unless climate change was addressed.

He said it was clear that climate change was driving bushfire risk.

“It is pretty clear when you approach this issue, when you look at the models, and you look at what we understand about the drivers of fire that risk is increasing,” Dr Williamson said.

“A lot of it in Tasmania comes down to the season getting longer and getting drier. We are getting warmer weather, drier weather also potentially in spring.

“The season is starting earlier and earlier and we are seeing periods of hot dry weather that we didn’t necessarily see in the past.”

Dr Williamson said this season may buck the trend due to La Nina, but generally year on year fire risk is increasing.

He said Tasmania was still at risk this year due to increased fuel loads.

“There are significant areas of vegetation that haven’t been burnt in a long time despite fuel reduction programs which have been ongoing for a long time,” Dr Williamson said.

“We also had quite a wet spring … and at this point things are fairly moist and wet and that’s not an issue but as we head into summer once we get a few warm dry weeks that grass will be a significant fire risk. I don’t think we are out of the woods.”

The National Natural Disasters Arrangements Royal Commission, which was conveyed after this summer’s bushfire crisis, agreed with Dr Williamson’s position on climate change.

The commission found that climate change had already increased the frequency and intensity of weather events which cause natural disasters.

It also found that their was clear evidence of climate warming and the association with increased bushfire risk.

“Extreme weather has already become more frequent and intense because of climate change; further global warming over the next 20 to 30 years is inevitable,” the report found.

“Globally, temperatures will continue to rise, and Australia will have more hot days and fewer cool days. Sea levels are also projected to continue to rise. Tropical cyclones are projected to decrease in number, but increase in intensity.

“Floods and bushfires are expected to become more frequent and more intense. Catastrophic fire conditions may render traditional bushfire prediction models and firefighting techniques less effective.”

Mr Arnol said it was imperative for individuals who live near bushland to be prepared for the coming season.

He said bushfire survival plans were essential and should outline how people prepare their property for the season.

“Writing and practising a bushfire survival plan will help people think through their actions logically, gives them something to refer to, and can help control fear and anxiety if a bushfire breaks out nearby,” Mr Arnol said.

He said the plan should include:

  • The steps you are going to take to prepare your home for bushfire.
  • If you are planning to stay, the steps you are going to take to make sure you can defend your home safely.
  • The steps you are going to take to make sure you could leave early for a safe place -even if you had originally planned to stay.
  • A list of nearby safer places that you can escape to at short notices as a last resort if your plan fails.
  • If you plan to leave early, where you will go, how you will get there, what you will take with you, and what will trigger your plan to leave.

Mr Arnol said property owners should also be preparing for the season by creating fire breaks and minimising risks.

He said preparations should include:

  • Clearing debris from gutters
  • Filling gaps under eaves to prevent sparks and embers from entering.
  • Creating a defendable space clear of flammable vegetation at least 30 metres around the property.
  • Ensuring there is adequate water supply.
  • Burning off large properties and clear fine fuels.

“Bushfire preparation is a shared responsibility between landholders, fire agencies and all levels of government,” Mr Arnol said.

“At this time of year, we encourage Tasmanians in rural and semi-rural areas to pick a favourable weather window and burn off on their properties to reduce their own bushfire risk to protect themselves, valuable assets on their properties, and their communities.”

For more information on how to prepare for bushfire seasons visit the Tasmanian Fire Service website.

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