BY Tom O’Meara
Bushfire specialists and business leaders are warning industry and commerce to be prepared for the financial impact of catastrophic bushfires in the State.
Industry leaders including the Tasmanian Chamber of Commerce and Industry are concerned that a major bushfire would critically damage the state’s economy, throw thousands out of work and shatter investment opportunities – decimating some businesses into oblivion.
TCCI CEO, Michael Bailey, said a proposed October summit of Tasmanian business groups, would aim to mobilise industry and commerce to start exerting real influence over Tasmania’s fire approach.
“Starting from the horrible 1967 bushfires in the South, Tasmania has experienced a variety of natural events that have significantly impacted local business,” Mr Bailey said.
“Whether it be in floods in Hobart, fires in the North West and Dunalley, or snow events taking lives and damaging industry, Tasmania seems to be in the weather firing line.
“We have to ensure that we will never see another 1967 but also businesses must be prepared to manage the impact on their markets and staff.
“Many businesses find that their insurance is not appropriate and that they do not have WHS policies in place that inform staff of their work responsibilities through those dangerous events .”
Former ABC journalist and political writer, Greg Ray, covered the 1967 fires and is concerned that proliferation of housing in high risk areas will ensure an even more catastrophic event.
“I’m hoping to influence change in the State, particularly following a review after the most recent bushfires,” Mr Ray said.
“The failure of the 1967 Black Tuesday was to not extinguish fires when they first broke out. It seems the same thing may have happened last summer in the Huon, the World Heritage Area and at Dolphin Sands on the East Coast
“Despite Tasmania’s history of serious bushfire, there has never been any form of independent, professional assessment of the consequences of catastrophic fire on the business economy of the state.”
There is a growing belief within business today that such an assessment is urgently needed.
Bushfire specialists have estimated that for every dollar spent preventing bushfires there are savings in excess of four dollars in recovery costs.
In 1967, in the space of just one day, 1,293 homes were destroyed, 652 acres of land were reduced to cinders and thousands of farm animals were incinerated.
Small businesses and large industrial plants, such an Australian Newsprint Mills, were either put out of business or crippled by the impact.
The total cost was estimated at nearly half a billion dollars in today’s terms.
If there was a repeat in some future summer, the cost would be much, much worse.
This is just one of the issues to be considered at the planned business summit.
Another will be the current unwieldy structure of bushfire management in Tasmania, which is split between the Tasmanian Fire Service, National Parks and Wildlife, Sustainable Timber Tasmania and local government. As a result, there is no overarching, state-wide strategy for bushfire management and protection.
As long as bushfire management remains contained within bureaucratic silos, there is little likelihood of any long-term planning, Mr Bailey fears.
Business is also concerned at what appears to be community apathy or indifference to the threat of catastrophic bushfire based on the notion that ‘it won’t happen to me’. Mr Bailey said the attitude needed to change, especially given Hobart’s vulnerability should the Wellington Range catch fire in scorching heat as it did in 1967.
Specialists predict that a repeat of that catastrophe could wipe out as much as one third of urban Hobart.
The Business Summit will also consider the dual issues of funding and resources for the state’s firefighting services in the belief that while there is a clear need for increased spending on fire management and protection, there are clear indications that current funding could be spent to far better effect.