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Fire and floods stress farmers, Hydro

Edition 168 A charred highland landscape in Tasmania's Wilderness World Heritage Area. Image by Dan Broun, courtesy of the ABC

Erratic weather, with fires and floods at the same time, imposed stress on emergency workers, farmers, travellers and Hydro Tasmania in January.

More than 80 separate bushfires burned simultaneously at times in the north-west sending smoke as far as Melbourne and Hobart.

At their worst, the fires forced 150 residents of the small communities of Temma, Arthur River and Nelson Bay to shelter on a beach before being evacuated by boat.

There were no housing losses or injuries, but the Tasmanian Fire Service was stretched and needed reinforcements from interstate and from New Zealand.

The scale of the fires was unprecedented, with up to 650km of fire perimeter to be managed and more than 100 helicopters having to be deployed at one time.

A spokesperson said: “We are not going to be putting these fires out. We are very much in a defensive position, trying to establish containment lines and protect property and people that may come under threat.”

The fires raged through difficult terrain, damaging 34 conservation reserves and burning across an estimated 11,380ha of the Tasmanian Wilderness World Heritage Area.

Slow-growing and ancient plant communities were devastated in places; the Cradle Valley tourism cluster was cut off; and the popular Overland Track had to be closed.

Infrastructure associated with three north-west power stations was extensively damaged, including power poles, communications services and a transmission line between Fisher and Rowallan power stations.

Tasmania’s October-November period had been the driest on record and rainfall remained 35 per cent below average during December.

When rain finally arrived in late January it caused problems of its own, with roads impassable and homes and businesses inundated along the east coast.

Localised flooding impacted on the east and north-east, stranding many tourists, while the bushfires burnt on in the west where only light falls were recorded.

The State and Federal governments initiated drought-relief measures in mid-January.

The Tasmanian Farmers and Graziers Association (TFGA) welcomed $10 million made available in the form of Drought Concessional Loans.

The association’s CEO, Peter Skillern, praised the collaborative approach taken by the two governments in the face of a crisis for some farmers.

“These loans will allow eligible farmers to start responding to some of the immediate challenges that are facing them; and to start planning a way forward for their rural businesses,” Mr Skillern said.

“It is an important first step in helping to mitigate this particularly dry season.”

As well as the loans, extra funds were allocated to:

  • The Rural Relief Fund, which helps farmers meet immediate expenses, such as basic household supplies;
  • Rural Alive and Well, which employs outreach workers who connect farmers to available services; and
  • A new Feed and Fodder Registry website to help farmers through a severe fodder shortage.

TFGA President, Wayne Johnston, said there was little spare fodder about in Tasmania and more would have to be brought in from interstate.

There was a proposal from the dairy industry to import palm nuts from Indonesia as emergency fodder.

The Minister for Primary Industries, Jeremy Rockliff, instructed Biosecurity Tasmania to give priority to fodder, so that delays could be minimised.

Meanwhile, Launceston and three regional centres were placed on stage one water restrictions by TasWater, while five other towns were upgraded to stricter stage two restrictions.

At the same time, total bans were imposed on taking water for irrigation from the Mersey River, Leven River, Black River, Montagu River, Rubicon River, Quamby Brook and Liffey River.

Elsewhere, tensions rose over emergency water allocations provided to farmers who had not invested in local irrigation schemes.

Some farmers, who had put up funds to make the irrigation projects happen, expressed concerns that their allocations could be impacted by the emergency provisions.

The widespread rural stress seemed not to be affecting the State’s wine industry.

Wine Tasmania’s Sheralee Davies said the warm, dry weather had helped set up good quality and yield for the coming 2016 vintage.

“Unlike the low-yielding seasons of 2014 and 2015, this year’s harvest looks set to be much bigger,” Ms Davies said.

“At the moment, with still some time to go, we're already looking as though yields will actually be up, so that’s a good thing for us.”

Ms Davies warned, however, that smoke haze from the bushfires could taint grapes and make some wine unpalatable if it stayed around for too long.

The unprecedented dry spell could not have come at a worse time for Hydro Tasmania, with water storages below 19 per cent and the BassLink inter-connector cable out of commission for the first time.

With no capability to import power from the national grid, Hydro Tasmania was forced to restart its back-up gas-fired generators at Bell Bay which it had planned to sell off.

It also brought in diesel generators as temporary back-up.

Hydro Tasmania CEO, Steve Davy, said: “As we have done in the past, Hydro Tasmania will respond to this challenge through prudent and careful management of the options we have at hand.”

Run-of-river hydro power and energy from the State’s three wind farms were vital during the holiday period.

Tasmania’s biggest energy user, Bell Bay Aluminium, agreed to reduce its consumption by 10 per cent for up to five months to assist Hydro Tasmania in managing power supplies. Hydro Tasmania reported "positive discussions" with other major customers.

The Premier, Will Hodgman, said on 19 January that the operators of BassLink had advised him the repair vessel, Ile de Re, had surveyed the area around the fault and the information it had gathered was being reviewed.

Ile de Re returned to the fault site a week later in a bid to pinpoint the exact location of the problem. Two remote-controlled vehicles were used to bring the cable, buried under a metre of sand, to the seabed, enabling the problem to be located.

Part of the cable will have to be cut, taking some fibre-optic telecommunications out of service, before repair work starts next month.

The outage will not affect the National Broadband Network.

1 February 2016, Edition 168

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