Tasmanian government response to the 2009 Victorian bushfires

The Tasmanian Government response to the February 2009 Victorian bushfires has been slow, patchy, self-congratulatory and in some cases misleading. It has been largely guided by the recommendations of the Victorian Bushfires Royal Commission (VBRC) final report, published in July 2010, and the Victorian Government responses to that report.

The state government response is articulated in two documents:

  • ‘Tasmanian Government Position on Victorian Bushfire Royal Commission’, September 2010
  • ‘Review of Construction and Development Control in Bushfire Prone Areas’, Department of Premier and Cabinet, 2 August 2010

Out of the 67 recommendations in the VBRC final report, the Tasmanian Government has not supported two, supported 48 and supported 17 with some modifications.

Although the government has thrown quite a lot of funding at the issue, done the reviews listed above and can point to a lot of other activities under way, little of any importance has actually changed.

Not surprisingly, Tasmania followed the Victorian Government in rejecting the Commission’s recommendations (no. 27) regarding replacement of all single-wire power transmission lines with aerial bundle or underground cabling and (no. 46) a retreat and resettlement strategy for existing homes in high-risk areas.

When the government says that 48 recommendations are supported and 17 supported with some modifications, this is not the same as saying it is committed to acting upon the recommendations or that that actions that are under way are adequate.

If you look closely at the state government’s responses to each of the supposedly supported VBRC recommendations, there are a lot of references to a draft planning directive and a bushfire management accreditation program (see below), as if these will solve everything; and many other responses make dubious claims that, due to existing measures, ‘No further action is required’ (see below for an example in relation to biodiversity management).

The former premier, David Bartlett, said in a media release on 28 September 2010 that, ‘the key recommendations of the Royal Commission are totally consistent with the measures and strategies already being implemented in Tasmania’, then he lists a number of fire safety measures that have received funding. He goes on to say that, ‘It’s pleasing to see we’re already on the right track, and developing the best strategies to keep Tasmanians safe’.

These self-congratulatory statements can at best be described as exaggerations and at worst are misleading and life-threatening.

All that is actually occurring is the following:

  • drafting of a planning directive that ensures all planning authorities apply a consistent and (hopefully) effective approach to bushfire mitigation in establishing new homes in bushfir- prone areas
  • establishing an industry accreditation program for approving bushfire risk management plans as part of the planning process
  • allowing $500,000 in 2010–11 for a strategic broad-acre burning program to manage bushfire risks for public safety, and a similar allocation in the 2011–12 state budget
  • promoting previously funded TFS (Tasmanian Fire Service) programs, e.g. community protection plans identifying location of vulnerable people, improved mapping and communications strategies and an emergency alert warning system;
  • new human safety measures, e.g. introduction of new fire danger ratings, extending warning systems to individual mobile phones and establishing community fire refuges.

We will come back to the issue of broad-acre burning programs in a future edition of the newsletter and will leave others to judge the effectiveness of new or planned, but as yet untested, human safety measures. The TCT’s priority is where fire management for human safety impacts on native vegetation.

The former premier asked his department in 2010 to ‘lead a review of management arrangements in Tasmania, to investigate the right balance between biodiversity conservation and bushfire mitigation’ (Media Release, 28 September 2010).

Two closely linked measures have been progressed. A Draft Planning Directive Bushfire Prone Areas Code (Draft Bushfire PD) has been produced by the Tasmanian Planning Commissio (TPC) and it is currently assessing public submissions. The Fire Service Amendment (Bushfire Prone Areas) Bill 2011 was recently introduced into Parliament. It provided the necessary authority for the TFS to implement an accreditation process for individuals to certify bushfire hazard management plans.

The TCT’s submission to the Draft Bushfire PD raises numerous serious concerns.

Restricting development

The VBRC report recommends to ‘substantially restrict new developments and subdivisions in those areas of highest risk in the Bushfire-prone Overlay’.

While the state government response did not rule out such a course of action in Tasmania, it did not explicitly support it either. The Draft Bushfire PD and Background Paper continue this neutral stance, by failing to mention development restriction as an option.

The TCT recommends that the Draft Bushfire PD should be amended to enable planning authorities to restrict or prohibit development in some circumstances, on the basis that, in extreme situations, the risk cannot reasonably be managed or mitigated (through bushfire management plans) but must be avoided entirely.

It appears that the state government simply does not have the stomach for such a serious policy issue but does not want to rule it out. On such a serious life-and-death matter it is not good enough to say nothing and hope no one notices.

Since making our submission, we have written to the new premier to determine whether the government intends to restrict new developments and subdivisions in those areas of highest bushfire risk.

Purpose of the Planning Directive

The TCT questions why the purpose of the Draft Bushfire PD is solely focused on minimising risk to human life and property, rather than balancing these objectives with protection of the environment – as per the Tasmanian Government’s response to the VBRC Report recommendation 41.

Although not mentioned in the Draft Bushfire PD or Background documents, the TPC advises that a Biodiversity PD will also be developed and that planning authorities will need to implement both. We are not reassured by this as there is no guarantee that a Biodiversity PD will be developed with adequate controls over what can be done for the purpose of bushfire management.

The state government response to the VBRC recommendations reinforces our concern that biodiversity will be given second priority by the state government.

The VBRC recommendation 43 is that, ‘The Department of Sustainability and Environment conduct biodiversity mapping identifying flora, fauna and any threatened species throughout Victoria and make the results publicly available.’

The state government’s response is that, ‘No further action is required’, because,

‘The Tasmanian Government already undertakes biodiversity mapping and this information is publicly available through the Land Information Service Tasmanian (LIST).’

Anyone who works in threatened species management in Tasmania knows that the mapping of threatened species habitats is highly inadequate and the government’s statement is patently misleading.

Limitations of bushfire management plans

Under the Draft Bushfire PD and amendments to the Fire Service Act, the TFS will accredit suitably qualified people to develop and approve bushfire management plans, and to advise planning authorities when these plans are required. The planning authorities merely refer developments to accredited people and will not be required to see bushfire management plans, let alone approve them. The general public will not know what these plans contain and how they may be affected by them. This is totally unacceptable.

Bushfire management plans must follow TFS guidelines, but we recommend that the Draft Bushfire PD state what the guidelines require, to ensure that these are legal requirements. Also, the guidelines are very brief and provide virtually no substantial guidance. They should be improved.

High bushfire risk areas

The Draft PD does not contain a prioritisation of bushfire prone areas, e.g. high, moderate and low, based on vegetation type, topography etc, and this would seems to be a significant omission.

Water supply

There are many factors that will affect the likelihood that a water tank or dam will be maintained and that water will be retained for fire-fighting and not used elsewhere, but these factors are not mentioned. We suggest that development should be restricted where it is highly unlikely that water supply is maintained.

Peter McGlone