The response to Tasmania’s massive Gell River bushfire is under scrutiny, and the Government isn’t happy
Sprinklers are being trialled in Tasmania’s south-west as a bushfire threatens sensitive areas near Lake Rhona. (Supplied: Parks and Wildlife)
Smoke cloud lifts over Hobart as cool change helps ease Gell River bushfire conditions
Questions are being asked as to whether lessons from the bushfires that devastated Tasmania’s remote Wilderness World Heritage Area in 2016 have been applied to the latest blaze burning in the Gell River area.
- The Gell River bushfire has 50 TFS and PWS staff and six helicopters attending
- Environmentalists and unions have questioned the first response to the blaze
- Initially eight firefighters were mobilised on the ground
The Gell River fire has burned out more than 16,000 hectares of bushland that is rugged and difficult to access.
There are currently a total of 50 Tasmanian Fire Service and Parks and Wildlife Service staff dedicated to the blaze as well as six helicopters.
But questions are being asked about the early response when the fire broke out more than a week ago.
An initial eight firefighters were mobilised onto the fire ground.
Environmental commentator and author Andrew Darby raises questions about the initial response to the Gell River fire. (Supplied: Andrew Darby)
Environmental commentator and author Andrew Darby has concerns.
“I think on all appearances the way that this fire has managed to get away, that the initial response was too light,” he said.
He has asked why large air tankers and retardant were not used until this week.
“Why wasn’t it available earlier? Why wasn’t it used earlier? We need to understand exactly what’s going on with these fires,” he said.
“Publicly available information is critical if we’re going to be able to assess whether the response is adequate, whether we as the public need to pressure more for more resources for World Heritage firefighting.”
A report into the 2016 Tasmanian Wilderness World Heritage Area fires made a series of recommendations including the need for early intervention and rapid attack.
“When these dry lighting strike fires occur in the wilderness they need to be hit really hard and they need to be stamped out as soon as possible as heavily as possible and I think the use of resources is something that we need to get some very detailed responses from government on,” Mr Darby said.
A senate committee has also looked into the 2016 bushfires in the World Heritage Areas.
It recommended the Federal Government increase funding into the Parks and Wildlife Service.
“It’s a critical institution in Tasmania. Parks and Wildlife is the face of Tasmania to the outside world in many ways and I think they’ve been deprived of resources on a grand scale for a very long time and this potentially is the kind of problem we’re encountering as a result,” Mr Darby said.
Union calls for more PWS officers
The Gell River fire burns in Tasmania’s rugged and remote South West Wilderness World Heritage Area. (Supplied: Teagan Fone-Stephenson)
Tom Lynch from the Community and Public Sector Union said more Parks and Wildlife Service Officers were needed.
“We estimate over the life of the Hodgman government that the staffing has been cut by 15 full-time equivalents, they’ve recently put 15 in but we’re still about 15 down,” he said.
“We think we need about 50 or 60 more staff across the Parks and Wildlife Service just to get ahead of the number of tourists visiting us.”
He said officers were doing a fantastic job fighting fires but it came at a cost.
“Parks is significantly under resourced, it has barely enough field staff to clean the toilets and empty the garbage bins. We are not protecting our national parks assets in the way that we should,” he said.
Criticism ‘is beyond pathetic’
Emergency Services Minister Michael Ferguson has hit out at those questioning the response to the Gell River fire. (ABC News: Laura Beavis)
Minister for Police, Fire and Emergency Management Michael Ferguson hit back and said the “ill-informed criticism of the incredible firefighting work done by the Tasmania Fire Service and Parks and Wildlife Service over the last week is disgraceful”.
“There was an immediate and comprehensive multi-agency response to the Gell River fire. To have unions and others criticising these efforts is beyond pathetic,” he said.
Mr Ferguson said since 2016, the Government had invested $4 million to improve bushfire management in the wilderness area and an additional 19 fire crew have been employed.
“The response included the use of TFS water-bombing and intelligence-gathering aircraft, and the deployment of two Large Air Tankers to spread retardant in the area.
“TFS crews were also pre-positioned in the Upper Derwent Valley to protect life and property at risk of ember attack.
“Armchair experts who claim it is simple to put out a bushfire in remote wilderness show complete disrespect for the fantastic efforts made to keep Tasmanians safe.”
Call for community discussion
Philip Cocker, from Environment Tasmania, said there needed to be a discussion about how to handle a predicted increase in fires in wilderness areas.
“We’re in a different climate now so we need to have a discussion with the community about what our expectations are and what we’re prepared to do and what we’re prepared to pay for to protect these places under a new climate regime,” he said.
Mr Cocker said environment groups, scientists, the tourism sector, the Government and the community needed to come together to discuss the issue.
“Should we have a lot more remote firefighters? Should we have a trained Tasmanian firefighter force that is trained up in remote firefighting and is equipped to go in at the first hint of fire?” he said.
Vica Bayley from the Wilderness Society believes more funding should be allocated by the federal and state governments to remote area wilderness firefighting.
“We’ve got increased lighting strikes, we’ve got incredibly dry soil and vegetation environment out there in wild places means that this is the new normal and we have to develop and employ and implement techniques that responds to that,” he said.
He said lessons could be learned from the fire currently burning in the Gell River area.
“In the midst of this emergency it’s too early to raise really strong concerns but I think when the emergency is over there will be a range of questions that should be asked and need to be answered about how this was managed,” he said.