I spent this week with the fire-affected communities of NSW. Above all, they were unsatisfied by the measures in place and the policy enacted to help them rebuild.
I spent this week visiting and speaking with fire-affected communities in NSW. We started in Bundanoon, went to Cooma, Eden, Bega, Mogo, Tathra, Bermagui, Malua Bay, Pointer Mountain, Manyana and Kangaroo Valley.
Everywhere we went we heard the same thing, it has never been like this before. This is new.
We stood with our friend Nick in the ruins of his burnt out home, drove through still smouldering forests near Lake Conjola, spoke with ecologists about damage at Bundanoon, heard about ash clouds blanketing Cooma, and saw the burning chip mill at Eden.
The people we spoke to are all experts on what happened in their communities and what they need. We don’t need a Royal Commission to work out what is required, just a willing ear to hear the demands they are making right now.
Everyone was frustrated at the absence of any consistent planning for either prevention or recovery. They don’t want ad hoc policy announcements for whatever group the Prime Minister has decided to care about today, they want a systemic and community-focussed support program that helps those who need it, that considers steps like buying back houses in high-risk areas, and that takes a proactive approach to help industries and individuals transition from industries at serious fire and climate risk. They want someone coordinating the advice from experts and biologists to help the natural world recover.
No one wants a culture war about hazard reduction, they want action. None of them said it was too soon to talk about climate change.
We heard how prevention is being neglected or left up to already overworked volunteers. This means that risks and prevention measures on local properties are often not identified until the last minute where it can often be too late to address. Asking RFS volunteers to issue compliance notices to their neighbours puts them in a really tough position, and is beyond what we should be asking.
There is a strong need for local resilience. This includes designated safe areas having stand-alone power so that when power lines go down communities aren’t completely stranded.
In so many areas the existing road infrastructure was at capacity getting local residents out, and these same areas are slated for huge new developments that will increase the population by thousands, but with no new infrastructure. In Manyana, locals are living surrounded by burned forest and the last unburnt forest is slated for clearing for development.
The trauma of seeing these trees cut down after the loss they have experienced is hard to imagine. A moratorium on land clearing for development in all the fire-affected areas is obviously essential.
There is a strong need for local resilience. This includes designated safe areas having stand-alone power so that when power lines go down communities aren’t completely stranded. At many community centres, there were generators when the power went down but no way to actually plug them into the local systems.
Communities have worked out solutions to this – like emergency off-grid solar and battery facilities so when a fire hits, people have a central point where they can do things like access emergency communication, charge their phones, contact family and emergency services, and refrigerate medicine.
Some remote communities stayed and fought the fires even though they knew the RFS could not get to them because the fire would block their access roads. These communities deserve more support. A statewide investment to provide remote firefighting trailers for community use was one suggestion for how these communities could be provided with meaningful support rather than just relying on luck or personal wealth to have the necessary equipment on hand.
Everyone thanked the RFS. Everyone acknowledged the service given by volunteers in fighting these terrible fires. Everyone. Another constant feature was how local councils stepped in to provide essential and immediate aid in the absence of any state or commonwealth support. The Federal $1 million dollar grants are a start in helping these communities develop local resilience – as long as pro-developer councillors are not allowed to fritter the funds away on advertising campaigns. But councils, Mayors and Council workers all deserve our thanks and greater support in the future.
There was much frustration that State and Federal funding announcements overlooked two main needs – those of individual people who had lost their homes or livelihoods and nature.
People are devastated about the loss of forests and animals. The people on the South Coast and Southern Highlands don’t move there in spite of the trees, they love the trees. Not one of them argued for the wholesale slashing of the environment like that being proposed by the Prime Minister.
If anything they were looking at the burned forests around them and recognising how much help they will need to recover. These burns are worse than most have ever seen – the forests are deadly quiet with many trees and even the soil sterile and scorched, and even a few weeks in there were no green shoots in many areas. They know that doing nothing means extinction.
They are calling for more funding for National Parks to get out there and help the landscape recover. They want First Nations Rangers managing country and implementing cultural burns. They want native forest logging stopped and the loggers instead tasked with removing burned trees that are a risk to homes and roads.
We went down there in part to talk about our Draft Regional Rebuild plan which is a starting point to help fire-affected communities survive and thrive. Everyone knows visionary state-level planning is needed and they know what their community needs – it’s the job of politicians to listen and act.
There’s no time to waste.