Bushfires: Laws, Your Work, Animals, Claims and What To Do

Your legal rights, workplace rules, health and insurance around bushfires in Tasmania.

Firefighters’ Powers

Firefighters have incredibly broad powers and protections during bushfires. This includes entering on to private land or Crown land, and taking such lawful measures as they need to do to fight the fire – any damage the cause in the course of firefighting is deemed for insurance and liability purposes “caused by fire.” (Fire Service Act s111)

Legal protections can extend to anyone that the Fire Service have asked to help in firefighting (which can often include Parks or Forestry employees). Obstructing, impeding or hindering a person who assisting a Fire Service member in carrying out firefighting duties when they have been asked to is a criminal offence worth up to 6 months jail.

Parking your car next to a fire engine (so that they can’t do their job), wilfully driving over a fire hose, and failing to comply with lawful directions of fire or police officers (or their delegates) are themselves criminal offences. And – of course – throwing a lit match, cigar or cigarette out of your car window on a total fire ban day carries a penalty of up to 12 months jail for a first offence.

Pets, Livestock and Wildlife

Advice Lines: 6165 3263 (pets and livestock), 6165 4305 (wildlife)

Pets

Above all: keep them secure. Have a suitable safe-room in your house and secure domestic animals in the room, including in cages or leashes, well before any bushfire risk becomes extreme. You cannot afford to be chasing after the family dog while preparing your home for fire. Have in place clear plans for what you will do with your animals if you evacuate.

If you are evacuating and cannot take animals with you, do not lock them inside any barn, shelter or building.

Livestock

Biosecurity Tasmania provides guidelines on how to prepare – and what to do after a bushfire has hit. Most important is to make sure your Property Identification information is up-to-date with DPIPWE so that, even if you cannot make it back to your property during an evacuation, DPIPWE knows how many animals (and types) are on your property and can plan accordingly.

Their website also includes information on emergency burials of livestock, emergency slaughter, and information on pre- and post-fire care.

Insurance, Workplace Law and Crisis Payments

In regard to insurance claims over your property after a bushfire, Legal Aid Tasmania has written an excellent factsheet on what to do, which you can access here. You can also find information from Centrelink here regarding crisis and disaster recovery payments.

The circumstances around work arrangements will depend on your individual employment contract or award and you should always seek advice on these from your trade union, a lawyer, or call Fair Work Australia. As a very rough guide:

  • Employees who are volunteer fire-fighters or SES volunteers are entitled to community service leave to allow them to work during the period of the emergency. Employees must inform their employer as quickly as possible that they are required for this. Generally this is unpaid leave.

Employers should also be careful of a little known criminal law offence – that it is illegal under Tasmanian law to stop a person assisting with firefighting duties directly or indirectly, with a penalty of up to 6 months jail.

  • If your employer is not able to open their business, they probably can require you to take annual leave (but not personal or carers leave) until they are able to reopen. The situation after any fire, if they cannot reopen immediately, is different in case to case.

  • If your employer needs you to perform other duties, such as working from home, a different business site, or performing different duties at work when recovering from the fire, they are normally able to require this. However, occupational health and safety laws continue to apply and employers should be careful about directing work from home, if they are not aware of the safety situation there – they may be liable if something occurs.

  • If you cannot get to your workplace, your employer is generally not required to pay you for your work. However, check your agreement (and ask your employer): you may be able to reach an agreement, or use existing paid annual leave or unpaid personal leave.

Smoke and Health

Amongst the other advice taken from the Department of Health and Human Services:

  • Follow your asthma action plan, or your plan for managing flare-ups of other health conditions. If you don’t have a plan, see your GP to prepare one.

  • If your symptoms get worse, get immediate medical advice or care.

  • Avoid physical activity outdoors. Activity increases breathing so you inhale more smoke particles.

  • Stay indoors with windows and doors closed where possible.

  • When indoors, avoid other sources of pollution such as cigarette smoke, candles, wood stoves, or fine dust from sweeping or vacuuming.

  • If your home gets too hot for comfort or a lot of smoke from outside gets in, consider visiting a friend’s place, or the library, shopping centre or sports centre.

  • If there is a break in smoky conditions, open the windows and air out your home.

  • People who need to travel should exercise caution if driving in smoke. Turn on your headlights and drive slowly.

  • Disposable face masks called ‘P2 masks’ are available from most hardware stores. They give some protection against smoke particles but are only effective if worn correctly; they can make it harder to breathe and they do not filter out gases.

  • Switch air conditioners to ‘recycle’ or ‘recirculate’.

  • Portable air cleaners, available from home electrical stores, will lower the concentration of indoor particles and reduce the risk of health impacts from smoke. Only air cleaners that use either a HEPA filter, or an electrostatic precipitator, will provide protection from particles. Devices that only humidify, generate negative ions, or absorb unpleasant smells do not reduce airborne particles.

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