Image for Firefighting review confirms TWWHA values protection bungle

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*Pic: Sandy Lake replica hut and back burn

A review of the firefighting efforts ( HERE ) into the unprecedented bushfires that ravaged Tasmania in 2016 has confirmed conservationist’s concerns that built infrastructure with zero heritage value was prioritised for protection over ancient, fire sensitive vegetation that forms part of the outstanding values of the Tasmanian Wilderness World Heritage Area (TWWHA).

Indeed, the report outlines the case of a partly constructed, replica hut being defended by a deliberate back-burn that incinerated stands of pencil pine, a species with links to the supercontinent Gondwana that does not recover from fire.

The report states:

“It was suggested to us that environmental values were not always prioritised in making tactical decisions: for example there was evidence to show that backburning to protect assets with little heritage significance may have subsequently led to impacts on nearby sensitive plant communities (for example at Sandy Lake). Given the number of interstate crews who may have lacked detailed knowledge of Tasmanian environmental assets, we are not surprised to learn of incidents of this nature…” (para 5.1.39 pg 27)

“This report is welcome and vindicates the main concerns articulated by conservationists about where improvements can be made in remote-are firefighting, planning and coordination in fire-sensitive ecosystems,” said Vica Bayley, spokesperson for the Wilderness Society.

“The confirmation that a partly-constructed, replica hut was prioritised for protection over irreplaceable World Heritage values demonstrates we need to ensure that firefighting and management frameworks are clear on the need to defend natural and Aboriginal cultural values over built infrastructure in the World Heritage Area.

The report also confirms that concerns raised about the delay in calling for interstate help and poor stakeholder communications were valid:

“The Review Team considers that the likelihood of needing assistance to manage the fires at some stage of the management of the incident ought to have been (and probably was) clear to the fire agencies by the 16th January…” (5.5.18 pg 30)

A call for assistance was not made until the 19th January.

“We did not see evidence of a clear communications strategy being developed which identified the stakeholders and outlined the actions and responsibilities…” (para 5.6.24 pg 33)

“The review is a welcome investigation and outline into what can be done better, including communicating with a wide range of stakeholders and there is a positive recommendation about community engagement before, during and after fire events,” said Mr Bayley.

Noting this, the Wilderness Society questions and condemns the Hodman Government’s strategy of leaking this ‘independent review’ in advance of its public release, spinning it to its advantage and scoring cheap political points as part of its hostile approach to conservation and conservationists. Despite engaging with the Review Panel and the recommendation for better stakeholder communications, no communication about the report’s release was received by the Wilderness Society.

“Mr Hodgman spins conservationist’s observations of the 2016 firefighting efforts as ‘unfair’ yet the report considers them ‘understandable’ and actually vindicates the three main questions conservationists have been raising; that World Heritage values were not always prioritised, that the severity of the situation should have been recognised earlier and that stakeholder communications could be improved. The Premier could lead by example and allow an ‘independent report’ to be released independently, free of politics and with prior communication with engaged stakeholders.”

The AFAC report can be accessed here:

https://www.fire.tas.gov.au/userfiles/tym/file/misc/1604_tasfirereport_final1.pdf