The Huon Valley Residents and Ratepayers Association (HVRRA) contacted all its members last week asking for feedback about their experiences during the recent fires. Several useful suggestions were offered and consistently Huon Valley Council and volunteer firefighters were singled out for thanks and praise.
One question that came up time and again in this survey was, ‘How did a small fire, that stayed that way for a few days, get so totally out of control?’
HVRRA president, Patrick Synge, said ‘There has been lots of speculation about this on social media. Some of the stories sound quite far-fetched but some sound very credible. Whatever; there are always lessons to be learned from events like this and the best time to collect relevant information is while memories are still fresh. We’ve been extremely lucky this time with relatively few houses damaged and no lives lost. But it could easily have been so very much worse. A real wake up call. And we must not forget that it was only the arrival of unexpected and unseasonal rain and cool weather that prevented what could have been a major disaster. Yes, we dodged a bullet this time but all predictions are for hotter and drier conditions in years to come. We are calling on the State government to establish a Public Inquiry to identify what worked well and what was less successful. Each fire event is different and there are always new lessons to be learned. This is not about finger-pointing, it’s about learning. In order to be better prepared in the future.’
HVRRA points out that this event affected every resident of the Huon Valley municipality (and further afield) to a greater or lesser extent. The immediate and ongoing costs have yet to be calculated but it seems clear that this will be at least a hundred million dollars and maybe more, so the relatively small cost of a Public Inquiry that might help us and other communities be better prepared and equipped for future fire events should be considered a good investment.
Mr Synge went on to say, ‘We agree with Wayne Johnston, President of the Tasmanian Farmers and Graziers Association, who stated “that some of the self-evident logistical issues and cultural differences between agencies and volunteers need to be addressed as a matter of urgency. We cannot go into another fire season without adequately resolving these issues” and, like the TFGA, we are seeking from the Tasmanian Government “a genuine commitment to learn from and resolve any issues that have arisen in this recent crisis.”’
Businesses, large and small, throughout the area have been impacted. More than 35,000ha of private forest estate has burnt along with significant damage to timber processing facilities and tourism infrastructure. More than 200,000ha of land has been scorched. The hidden damage to residents’ (and especially firefighters’) health from breathing the smoke over an extended period cannot be accurately assessed but is likely to lead to an increase in health expenditure in years to come: without even considering the human costs.
The impact on the World Heritage Area has yet to be fully assessed but it seems clear that much of the unique vegetation has been burnt. Some will regrow but some may never regenerate. The impact on wildlife in all the burnt areas will probably never be quantified.
HVRRA is therefore requesting a Public Inquiry into the bushfires and has suggested Terms of Reference which can be found on the association’s website www.huonvalley.org.au or the HVRRA Facebook page.
The Inquiry should seek to identify measures that can be implemented by governments, government agencies, industry and the community to minimise the incidence of bushfires and their impacts on life, property, the environment, the economy and the community with specific regard to the following.
(a) the extent and impact of the bushfires on the environment, private and public assets and local communities;
(b) the causes of and risk factors contributing to the impacts and severity of the bushfires, including land management practices and policies in the TWWHA, State forests, other Crown land and private property;
(c) the adequacy and economic and environmental impact of hazard reduction and other strategies for bushfire prevention, suppression and control;
(d) any alternative bushfire mitigation and prevention approaches, and the appropriate direction of research into bushfire mitigation;
(e) the adequacy of current response arrangements for firefighting;
(f) the adequacy of deployment of firefighting resources, including an examination of the efficiency and effectiveness of resource sharing between agencies and jurisdictions;
(g) the roles and contributions of volunteers, including current management practices and future trends, taking into account changing social and economic factors.
HVRRA acknowledges the valuable information contained in the 2013 Tasmanian Wilderness World Heritage Area Bushfire and Climate Change Research Project Report and maintains that a Public Inquiry into the 2019 fires would usefully build on this knowledge and help both the community and firefighting agencies to better prepare for future events.