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Forestry and timber stories

After the fires

Edition 202_Tahune

Tasmania is open for business. That’s the message from tourism leaders following summer’s devastating fires.

Thoughts now turn to recovery after the tireless efforts of firefighters ensured damage to property was limited, and most importantly there was no loss of life.

However, almost 200,000 hectares – around 3 per cent of Tasmania’s land area – went up in flames as dry lightning strikes sparked fires across the state.

Four major fires burnt through Tasmania’s wilderness during the state’s warmest, and driest, January on record.

The first blaze, at Gell River in the South West, broke out just before Christmas. Others quickly followed in the Huon Valley and Far South, Central Plateau, and at Brittons Swamp in the North West. They continued to burn into February, but a recent cold snap – that included snow in fire ravaged areas – ensured the blazes no longer threaten communities. 

During the height of the crisis hundreds of people were moved to the safety of evacuation centres, and while touring the biggest one in Huonville, Prime Minister Scott Morrison called for help.

“Please come to Tasmania again soon … this place will be looking for support, whether it is here in the Huon, or elsewhere,” the Prime Minister told the gathered media on February 4.

“The way all Australians can help Tasmanians, and all those affected here, is by coming and visiting, and experiencing some of the great natural wonders of the world.”

It’s the same message being delivered by tourism leaders.

“The message at the moment is that Tasmania is very much open for business. We encourage people to continue with their plans to come here, and there are many areas that are unaffected,” Destination Southern Tasmania CEO, Alex Heroys said.

“And the best thing that the local community and visitors can do is stick with their plans and enjoy the areas that are open.”

Costs are now being counted.

The destruction of large tracts of Tasmania’s world-famous wilderness – one of the most important aspects of our valuable brand – together with the devastation to native wildlife, is incalculable.

Local communities affected by the fires are also dealing with both the social and economic fall-out, including loss of income with smaller businesses reliant on Tourism, particularly hard hit.

In the Far South for example, one of Tasmania’s key tourism attractions, The Tahune Airwalk near Geeveston, has been substantially damaged and is closed until further notice.

“Many key tourism attractions, including natural areas have been damaged in these fires, and we will need to work hard with the communities to drive visitation back to these areas,” Heroys adds.

“Tourism is a key economic pillar of all the communities affected by the fires, including the Central Highlands and Derwent Valley, as well as the Huon Valley and Far South.

“We know that small businesses will struggle to continue when there is a loss of almost an entire peak season’s income, so we will be working hard with the Department of State Growth and Tourism Tasmania to offer them all the assistance that we can, and to work hard on that economic recovery.”

The Huon blaze also wreaked damage to the state’s forestry industry.

Hardest hit was the Ta Ann veneer mill at Lonnavale, in the Huon Valley, which was so extensively damaged that costs have been estimated in the millions of dollars, and normal operations will be disrupted for months.

Ta Ann Tasmania Executive Director, Evan Rolley, told The Mercury: “The wild fire has caused extensive damage to log processing and related infrastructure, and other damage that is not immediately visible is still being assessed.”

“The impact of the fires on commercial forests and plantations, and therefore on future log supply, is also unclear at this stage.”

The fire in the South West wilderness also extracted a large toll, this time on the producers of Tasmania’s world-famous leatherwood honey.

This liquid gold – which accounts for 70 per cent of all of Tasmania’s honey production – is created from the flowers of leatherwood trees, found only in the region’s pristine rainforests.

Unfortunately, large numbers of leatherwood trees have been lost in the Florentine Valley as a result of the Gell River fire. Some of these valuable trees were also destroyed on the West Coast following a fire at Zeehan.

The Tasmanian Beekeepers Association predicts production of leatherwood honey will be down 75 per cent this year, delivering the industry’s worst season in 35 years with the effects being felt for years to come.

"We haven't got a lot of leatherwood anyway," Tasmanian Beekeepers Association Vice President Peter Norris told ABC News.

"Leatherwood doesn't handle fire, it takes a couple of hundred years to come back … We're never going to see it recover — once it's gone, it's gone.

“Hives I can replace; leatherwood I can't replace.”

Meanwhile, up in the Central Highlands where trout fishing in the cool pristine waters is regarded as among the best in the world, the summer peak season has been lost.

And, according to Kaylee Hattinger who runs the Great Lake Hotel in Miena: “This is going to hurt a lot of people."

“January and February are our busiest time with people coming from the mainland and overseas to fish, and we all really need that peak season to get us through the winter,” she said.

However, Hattinger is quick to add that things could have been so much worse. Only one shack was lost, and lots of bush “but that will quickly grow again".

“The TFS [Tasmania Fire Service] took lots of pro-active work before the fires, like building fire breaks and getting their teams ready,” she adds.

“What they did was nothing short of a miracle.”

Meanwhile, in the Central Highlands, as in the rest of Tasmania, the community has banded together.

Hattinger kept the firefighters fed with free meals and beer, while volunteers at the local community hall locals pitched in with morning tea and a place to rest.

“We are a small but active community and everyone has been looking out for everyone else,” she said.

“It has been a real team effort.”

Image courtesy of the Tasmania Fire Service

18 February 2019, Edition 202

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