Please write a submission to the Senate Inquiry

In January, bushfires in Tasmania burnt more than 18,000 hectares of World Heritage Area eucalypt and rainforests and other types of vegetation, with almost 105,000 hectares of land burnt in total across the state.

As noted by Professor David Bowman:

The fires are extremely destructive for two main reasons. First, the fires are threatening vegetation that is unique to Tasmania, including iconic alpine species such as the Pencil Pine and cushion plants, as well as temperate rainforests.

Second, the fires are burning up large areas of organic soils upon which the unique Tasmanian vegetation depends. It is extremely unlikely burnt areas with the endemic alpine flora will ever fully recover given the slow growth of these species and the increased risk of subsequent fires given the change to more flammable vegetation and the slow accumulation of peat soils, which takes thousands of years. Past fires have resulted in a permanent switch from the unique Tasmanian alpine vegetation to more fire-tolerant vegetation.

It was clear that insufficient resources were available to fight the fires in the World Heritage Area (WHA), with resulting devastation of large sections of vegetation which are not fire adapted. FoE joined a number of other groups in calling for an inquiry into the fires. Thanks to the many people who signed our petition – it had an impact.

In February, the Senate announced there would be an inquiry into the ‘response to, and lessons learnt from, recent bushfires in remote Tasmanian wilderness’.

This is a great opportunity for us to get a clear message to the federal government that they need to provide resources to help Tasmania fight fires in these sensitive areas, and need to consider the impacts of climate change on how fires are planned for, and fought, in coming years.

We hope you will take the time to write a submission. They should be lodged by 15 April 2016.

The inquiry has a set Terms of Reference, meaning your submission needs to respond to these:

“The response to, and lessons learnt from, recent fires in remote Tasmanian wilderness affecting the Tasmanian Wilderness World Heritage Area, with particular reference to:

(a)     the impact of global warming on fire frequency and magnitude;

(b)     the availability and provisions of financial, human and mechanical resources;

(c)     the adequacy of fire assessment and modelling capacity;

(d)     Australia’s obligations as State Party to the World Heritage Convention;

(e)     world best practice in remote area fire management; and

(f)      any related matter”.

 

Submissions may be emailed as an attached document to ec.sen@aph.gov.au or uploaded to the Committee website here: https://senate.aph.gov.au/submissions/pages/logon.aspx

Attached below is a possible draft submission that you can cut and paste and send to the email address above. If emailing them, please BCC us (cam.walker@foe.org.au) so we know how many submissions have gone in.

Many thanks for taking the time to send a submission. It is clear that there are vital lessons to be learnt from this summer’s fires, and climate science tells us we can expect more fire seasons like the one we just experienced. We need to be better prepared for the next fires of this scale.

There is a background story from Wild magazine on the fires available here.

Thanks to The Wilderness Society for some of the materials used in the draft submission and to photographer Rob Blakers for use of images.

Regards

Cam Walker, Friends of the Earth Australia

 

DRAFT SUBMISSION

 

Please make whatever changes you want and then email to the address above or upload to the Committee website.

 

SUBJECT LINE: Submission: Inquiry into recent bushfires in Tasmania

 

Inquiry into the response to, and lessons learnt from, recent bushfires in remote Tasmanian wilderness

 

[Introduce yourself/ where you’re from]

I appreciate the opportunity to make a submission to this inquiry. It is essential that we learn from the experience of the wildfires that happened in Tasmania over the summer of 2015/16.

It is clear that there were insufficient resources available for the Tasmanian Fire Service, Forestry Tasmania and the Parks and Wildlife Service to contain the fires in the World Heritage Areas (WHA) including the Central Plateau, Cradle Mountain Lake St Clair National Park, Walls of Jerusalem, and Franklin – Gordon Wild Rivers National Parks.

This mean that firefighting authorities – who did an incredible job of bring these bushfires under control – needed to prioritise human assets like townships at the height of the fires. This, in turn meant that insufficient resources were available to contain many remote area fires (including at Lake Mackenzie, Lake Ball and the February Plains), resulting in major damage to vegetation which is not fire adapted.

Rather than individually address the terms of reference (ToR), I would like to make a number of points and recommendations that I hope you will consider. They all fall within the ToR of the Inquiry.

1/ It is clear there are inadequate resources available to Tasmania firefighting authorities in fire seasons where there are extensive fires in western, north western and central Tasmania. This is shown by the fact that interstate and federal resources were needed to bring the fires under control.

For instance:

- Military personnel and equipment was needed to assist with logistics: Australian air force planes were used to transport fire-fighters from interstate and assist with the establishment of base camps near the fires.

- Large aircraft from mainland Australia were needed to tackle the fires from the air: Three ‘Large Air Tankers’ (LAT) in the form of a DC10-Bomber and two C130-Bombers were deployed to bomb the fires with water and fire retardant.

- interstate fire crews were needed to get all fires under control. While it is standard practise for firefighting authorities to support each other where possible, the delay in getting interstate crews into remote area fires meant they were not able to be contained while they were small, resulting in significant loss of communities that are not fire adapted, especially stands of Pencil Pines (Athrotaxis cupressoides) and cushion plant communities.

Because interstate remote area crews were not deployed in the field until the fires had been burning for 10 days, the Committee needs to consider whether there was an error made in assessing the scale of the fires and the decision making processes around requesting interstate support.

In particular the Inquiry should consider whether a new national remote area firefighting unit or capacity needs to be created, which is able to be deployed to fires in the national park and WHA estate in Australia, and Tasmania in particular.

There is a clear role for the federal government to intervene and provide additional resources to fight future fires because the Minister for the Environment is the Minister responsible for World Heritage properties.

Recommendations

The Inquiry should consider whether additional resources (staff and equipment) need to be deployed to Tasmania on a permanent basis to fight future fires. Given that the TFS says it has sufficient resources at present, it is essential that this new capacity come from the federal government.

I recommend that the federal government:

  • Recognise the catastrophic threat to key Outstanding Universal Values of the Tasmanian Wilderness and other major natural attributes posed by fire;
  • Report on wild fires as a routine part of its State of Conservation reports;
  • Provide coordination and financial support to enable the Tasmanian Government to develop and implement a long-term bushfire response plan designed to protect Outstanding Universal Value and other environmental attributes in Tasmania;
  • Oversee the review of the Management Plan for the Tasmanian Wilderness to ensure wildfires and their threats to Outstanding Universal Values are adequately addressed;

 

2/ There is substantial evidence that climate change may have made this seasons fires worse, because of the warmer and drier than average conditions in western Tasmania that lead to the scale of the fires. I note that research carried out for the National Parks Service shows an increase in ‘dry lightning’ strikes in recent years, which is consistent with predictions from climate scientists.

Therefore, the presence of climate change enhanced fire needs to be considered the new reality of managing the WHA.

Recommendations

The Committee should recommend that the federal government:

  • Provide financial resources for additional research into the relationship between climate change, bushfires and ecology in Australia, and the Tasmanian WHA in particular
  • Bolster its efforts to research, model and tackle climate change
  • The Committee must accept that without acting decisively to radically reduce Australia’s contribution to climate change, we will face ever worse fire seasons like the one experienced in Tasmania in early 2016. The federal government should set its policy on energy and exports accordingly.

 

The federal government needs to proactively work with the Tasmanian government to do the following:

  • Review, modify and publish action plans for responding to outbreaks of wildfires and recognise these in the Tasmanian WHA property’s revised management plan
  • develop and publish long-term plans for ameliorating threats to Outstanding Universal Value and other natural and cultural attributes.

The impacts of this summer’s fires will be felt for decades, if not centuries. It is imperative that we learn from them and ensure there is adequate protection for WHA in future fire seasons.

Yours sincerely,