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Tasmania enters 'new era of bushfire risk': Zurich

A comprehensive Zurich study examining Tasmania’s devastating bushfires of 2018/19 and the experience of authorities and affected groups finds the island state has entered a “new era of bushfire risk”.

The disaster burnt 210,000 hectares and services were overwhelmed by multiple fires across the western half of the island state from Christmas Eve 2018 through to the following March during one of the hottest and driest summers on record.

This event destroyed globally precious, protected ecosystems of the Tasmanian Wilderness World Heritage Area. The event impacted tourism, viticulture and apiary industries.

Prior to 2019, Tasmania fought severe bushfires in 2006, 2010, 2012, 2013 and 2016, and tough fire seasons are predicted for the coming years.

“Since the turn of the millennium, climate change and land use change have converged to bring about a new fire regime in Tasmania,” Zurich’s first Australian Post-Event Review Capability (PERC) report said.

The insurer says a focus on firefighting response has put too little attention on community and business resilience before, during and after bushfire.

“There is much to learn from this event for Tasmania and other jurisdictions who will likely face similar events,” the report said.

After consultation with emergency services personnel, foresters, municipal authorities, community and experts, it identifies opportunities to build resilience globally as climate change increases the frequency and severity of extreme fire, and as drying increases fuel loads.

“The fires in southwest Tasmania in January 2019 provide an important case study,” Zurich said. “Lessons from events such as this are not only critical for areas with a history of wildfire but also areas in the expanding high-risk zone.”

More than two thousand dry lightning strikes hit the state, igniting 70 fires that formed into four massive fire complexes. Over 95,000 protected heritage hectares burned.

The Huonville evacuation centre was open for 15 days, accommodating up to 700 people daily.

An unknown number of people are believed to have died due to smoke inhalation and 22 injuries warranted a worker’s compensation claim.

Zurich Resilience Solutions Head in Australia and New Zealand Mervyn Rea says that as climate change and shifting weather patterns impact bushfire severity around the globe, learning lessons from past events is critical.

“The recommendations in this report are particularly important given the 2019/20 Australian mainland bushfires that followed, gaining global attention for the sheer scale and severity,” he said

The PERC methodology has so far analysed 17 events, including floods in Europe, the US, Nepal and Peru and wildfires in the US, Canada and, now, Australia.

The report's recommendations, made in collaboration with the Bushfire and Natural Hazards Cooperative Research Centre and the International Institute of Applied Systems Analysis, include the following:

- Create an adaptive bushfire risk management plan with a high-quality model of bushfire risk.

- Communities should be at the centre of resilience and preparedness programs. All potential impacts should be considered including smoke pollution.

- Prescribed burning in wilderness areas should be complemented with fuel breaks to protect assets and valuable ecosystems.

- Working relationships between fire agencies, landowners and conservationists should be reinvigorated.

- Define when environmental assets should take priority over infrastructure.

- Embrace that there is no single solution to “solve” the problem, and the approach requires comprehensive resolutions.

- Clarify and codify the role of the community sector in emergencies and resolution processes.

- Regularly review the strategy for making best use of emergency volunteers.

- Governments need to adopt stringent CO2 emission reduction targets as part of long-term adaptation.