Flammable Hobart

As I write, around 120 fires are burning in Queensland and New South Wales. It’s an unprecedented fire emergency so early in the year. Houses have been lost, including the heritage-listed Binna Burra Lodge. Precious Gondwanan rainforest, normally fire-resistant, is aflame. 

As we continue to see extreme natural disasters of this kind, it is clear that Australia and the world’s climate is changing dramatically. No longer can we count on what we thought we knew about fire. It is now impossible to ignore the severity of the predicament we face.

It’s important to speak truthfully about the serious threat that bushfire poses to Hobart in this time of increased climate emergency.

Hobart has always been a dry city, but we are rapidly turning into a tinderbox city. It’s drier now than the last two years when we also experienced extended fire seasons.

As Lord Mayor, I am confident that the City of Hobart has been working hard to prepare us for the inevitable big fire. Unfortunately, I’m not confident that other government partners or the community are as ready as they should be.

The Independent Operational Review of the 2018-19 bushfires said very clearly that our State Control Centre is not adequate. The State service has done almost no fuel reduction burning so far this year. In addition, Tasmania is years behind national practices when it comes to having unified command protocols.

The City of Hobart has created 50 hectares of green fire breaks between every property that neighbours our bushland, and upgraded more than 100 kilometres of fire trails. We have also identified bushfire-prone regions in our planning laws and have 35 trained firefighters on staff. 

I am proud to say that it is unlikely any other Council in the state, or possibly the country, has devoted as much time and money to fire preparedness. This is because we are unique in terms of the amount of bushland we manage and the proximity of the city to the bush..

As we have seen on the mainland, the bushfire season will again start early this year. 

This means we have less time to do all our fuel reduction burns and all of us need to be prepared earlier. 

So far in 2019, the rainfall amount for Hobart is 183.9 mm. The average is 359 mm, and this reflects an increasing rainfall deficit since 2017. Despite the recent rain, the Hobart Soil Dryness Index remains at 64.7 and the Drought Factor is 7.2 – figures that are usually seen in early summer. 

The simple fact is that urban bushfire is the greatest risk to the residents of Hobart.

We currently have a $1.9 million annual budget for fire prevention across the Council area, which includes:

  • $500,000 capital program per year for three years to complete 113 km of fire trail upgrades;
  • 35 trained firefighters on staff to implement a hazard reduction burning program of 250 hectares per year;
  • a 9-person team in our Fire and Biodiversity Program;
  • 7 firefighting vehicles in our fleet
    • 113 km of firetrails maintained to a minimum standard to improve access for firefighters, with $370,000 for their maintenance through an annual audit;
    • $237,000 per year for fuel break extension and upgrading;
    • $174,000 annual maintenance budget.

We also work with residents across the city to improve awareness, close all of our reserves on Total Fire Ban Days to protect the community, and work with the Tas Fire Service during bushfires. Helping with the recovery and response effort after the fires earlier this year in the Huon was also invaluable in preparing our staff for our next bushfire event.  

However, the community should not complacently rely on governments to protect them from wildfire. Unless there is a huge boost in spending to deal with climate change, government will not have the resources to deal with this new paradigm. All of us as citizens need to learn to live with bushfire and all play a part in countering this growing threat.

The 1967 bushfire looms large in our consciousness.  Many in our community lived through that awful day where 64 people perished, 900 were injured, and 1,293 homes were destroyed. 

Since then, Hobart has doubled in size and population, intensifying the consequences of the next big fire. 

Everyone needs to think about how to defend themselves and their houses in this changing climate.  At our home in South Hobart, my family is investigating water tanks and sprinklers as defence strategies against ember attack. Surrounding our suburb are thickly timbered hillslopes that were burnt to the ground in 1967.

I encourage everyone to get involved in fire preparation. You can find assistance on the City of Hobart website, and we also send bushfire preparedness information to people who have bought property in parts of Hobart that are bushfire-prone.  

We’re all in this together, and together we have the best chance of becoming a city that is resilient in the face of the growing fire risk.

Councillor Anna Reynolds is Lord Mayor of Hobart