The bushfires - a reflection

The State Government and its instrumentalities are to be congratulated for its response to the bushfires that raged throughout Tasmania.  The timely appointment of the Bushfire Recovery Taskforce is welcomed, and its membership would appear to be up to the task.

Getting people back on track is a major priority for the taskforce, and co-ordinating government services will be a major task for it.  If I was to make a recommendation to the government it would be to enter into an arrangement with the Commonwealth for the single management of service delivery.  As services cross over between State and Commonwealth responsibilities, it would be most unhelpful to find ourselves caught in a turf war.

Not a life lost in the fires – what a magnificent result and those co-ordinating the reactive responses to the fires must be congratulated – they did a sterling job.  However, the loss of a volunteer firefighter through natural causes while working on a containment line is a deep sadness.

For those caught up in the terror and trauma of the fires, it is to be hoped that they will move to rebuild their lives homes and businesses and that the funds and services will be made available for this to occur.

There will eventually be an inquiry into these fires, and I suspect the Taskforce could well morph into a deeper Inquiry.  Hopefully they will consider the aspects of fire prevention and fire control, as well as the reconstruction effort. 

On prevention of fire

Fire is awful – in the true sense of the word.  It is indiscriminate and it is unforgiving. However it is an integral part of life in Australia - the Australian bush has adapted to this element, and will recover from this latest round of ‘cleansing”.  We cannot ignore it, or pretend it won’t happen again.  It will.

In this particular circumstance, the major outbreaks occurred on private land, and questions will need to be asked as to whether fuel management was adequate.  Hazard reduction burning has to be a “must-do” activity.  It might be an inconvenience to some people, but to not do it will inconvenience them a whole lot more.

I was interested to hear the fire chief say that the principal responsibility for hazard reduction lies with the landowner.  Yet a number of landowners are complaining that government places covenants on their land that inhibit and prohibit them doing so, and mainly in the name of habitat preservation.  However, with a major fire both habitat and animals are totally destroyed, so the covenants can be self-defeating.  The inquiry must give earnest consideration to this issue come the time.  Local government will also need to consider its approach to hazard reduction, and develop appropriate policies to manage this issue.

On response to fire

Once the severity was clearly understood, once the fire had grabbed hold, the emergency services swung into action.  The crews on the ground have been magnificent in their efforts to contain the fires and to save lives and property.  Their  communications seemed to work OK, and mobility was not compromised.

Was their sufficient fire fighting equipment?  Were the firefighters sufficiently trained?  The reduction in the numbers of permanent and trained firecrews over the last few years have placed a greater burden on the volunteer brigades, and resourcing is a significant issue.

A number of comments have suggested the need for a greater concentration of air power in combating fire once it gets a hold.  As it was in the ACT and in Victoria, we will need to pay more than lip service to this aspect of fire management.  Attacking fire from the air is essential in country where it is difficult to get firecrews and equipment in place quickly.  Furthermore, once fire takes hold, containment on the ground can be almost impossible.

The rise of social media has made the response during this fire season different from any other preceding it, and the role that social media played in co-ordinating aspects of the rescue efforts cannot be overstated.  On Thursday it was non-existent, by the end of the first weekend it was playing a pivotal role. How information is managed in times of crisis should be a matter for the Inquiry to consider, including whether it needs to be - or even can be - managed at all.  The fact of the matter is that social media is immediate.  Government by its nature is much slower to respond.  The fact that government was accessing social media during the most difficult days is a mark of the way things will work in the future.

On rebuilding after fire

The fires in the south east saw a rapid loss of communications and power to communities under threat.  Poles and wires needed to be reconnected and replaced, telecommunication towers needed to be repowered.   And – strangely - generators needed to be flown in from Queensland.

The Inquiry must consider the issue of redundancy, or “backup”.  If a line goes down, what are the options to ensure communications are not lost?  If a road is closed, what other roads can be used? And how should they be maintained?

Tasmanians have been extraordinarily generous in helping those who have suffered to hold the line.  Food and clothing, toiletries and shelter have been well and truly on offer, and it is to be hoped that this generosity will continue for a while yet.  Again, this does require management, to ensure that the goods being supplied are appropriate to the need. 

The immediate task for the Taskforce will be the immediate cleanup and rebuild – the need for an immediate response can involve cutting corners – I can only wish them well in this task. 

I grieve for the animals that have been caught up in the conflagration.  For many, there was just nowhere to go, they were trapped –wildlife, pets, and farm animals – horrific.

I think it is a sign of our humanity as a society and as a community, the way we respond to traumatic and destructive events such as this.  Our compassion for animals and humans alike shows us in a tremendous light.

There is much to be learnt, not everything has been perfect, but the way we have come together as a community to share this burden, Tasmanians can indeed be proud.