Presentation on QON21/003 BUSHFIRE RESPONSE

I would like first to congratulate Cr Mayne for this question as it is important to thoroughly review what we did and what we learnt from the disastrous fires in 2019 and early 2020.

I would also like to congratulate and acknowledge the tireless work staff at the Council did both during and in the aftermath of these fires, which is reflected in this report.

What happened during those nightmarish months of 2019 and 2020 were a taste of what we can expect as our climate changes.  We need our governments at all levels to do two things. First governments must recognise that there is a problem, and that the problem is primarily to do with human caused Carbon Dioxide (CO2) emissions. At local council level, we need to be working with the community and business to reduce our local CO2 emissions, and in the context of this report, build resilience in the community to the natural disasters that we are likely to face as the climate changes.

We also need to be aware that climate change will cause many natural disasters, including flooding, destructive winds, and, as we have recently seen in northern Canada, extreme heat waves. The Canadian heat wave resulted in around 500 deaths.  This increase in disasters has been acknowledged in the Royal Commission into Natural Disasters (Overview points 22-25 p 22) (Australian Government, 2020)

So, what does the Council report tell us?

The first part of the report details the impressive work of staff at our council to assist those affected by the bushfires.  We can see how the staff worked with both State and Federal Governments to get initial support to our community, and how that support was deployed to provide assistance to those most affected by the fires.

Once the immediate aftermath was over, we see again how the Council and staff identified what needed to be done to allow the community to start to get back on its feet.  This included providing physical and emotional support to the community, including practical advice on how to access funding to those who had substantial losses of housing and property due to the fires.  The council also employed a Community Recovery Officer, funded by Resilience NSW to assist in this work, including recruiting and managing volunteers.

The council also advocated on the community’s behalf to the NSW government to ensure that State regulations and legislation did not unnecessarily delay recovery efforts.  This included making it easier for temporary accommodation to be provided, and changes to the DA approval process to streamline rebuilding homes destroyed by the fires, including reducing NSW government fees.

During this time, the council also worked to do what it could to remediate the impact the fires had on our natural environment, which is such an important feature of our Shire, bringing substantial revenue to local businesses through tourism, farming and aquaculture.



The second part of the report, where the focus is on how we as a community can build our strength and resilience to what are likely to be more common events, shows where the Council need to do more.

The report details what the Council has done to increase resilience to our physical infrastructure, including building a dedicated emergency centre which is undoubtedly important to assist the community both during, in the immediate aftermath and in recovery of a natural disaster.

What the report does not address is building resilience in local communities, which is so important during and in the immediate aftermath of a natural disaster.  This is especially important in our Shire, where we have many small villages, often in isolated and vulnerable areas.

One way to reduce the likelihood of individuals and communities becoming adversely affected by natural disasters is to increase their sense of control over these events as they occur and in the immediate aftermath.  In the Royal Commission, this was as an important factor to consider, as it was in the NSW Inquiry into the Bushfires.

The first concern has to be that community members know what to do in the event of a disaster to be safe. They community needs to feel confident that if they follow these procedures, they will be safe.  This includes knowing that there are evacuation centres which are adequately staffed, safe and sanitary.  The council has addressed this in its report to an extent with discussion about evacuation centres. This needs to be followed up in local communities so that all know and are familiar with what individuals need to do to be safe before the disaster happens.  Both the Royal Commission and the NSW enquiry prioritise this. This preparedness is best done at a local level by council.

There will be times when the community will need to look after itself, especially in the immediate aftermath of a disaster, or when a disaster is sudden.  When I was listening to people who were in the small villages affected by the fires, one of the recurring themes was that access to essentials such as water, emergency shelter, and communications were lacking or absent in the immediate aftermath of the fires, and there was little they could do to fix this.

Given these observations, it may be a worthwhile initiative for the council to investigate working with communities to give them the resources they need to be self-sufficient for up to fourteen days.   I remember my mother being involved in “civil defence” when there was concern about nuclear war, learning how to set up field kitchens, sanitary areas, communications, and temporary housing. If this were to happen the council would need to work with community members to recruit and train and to have regular practice of using the materials available.  This could become a community event, building community strength and resilience. [1]

The community recovery officer could be tasked to investigate along with our local  communities what essentials would need to be in a community cache, and whether there are successful examples elsewhere, both in Australia and worldwide which could be used as a template in our Shire.

Although I applaud the funds the Council received in the recent funding round for bushfires, I was disappointed that there appeared to be no funding for investigating and building community resilience initiatives to allow small villages to have the control and self-sufficiency they need after a major disaster.

[1] One of the observations in the royal commission is that there can be a case put forward for developing community caches. The Royal commission uses the example of isolated flood prone properties that have access to up to a fortnight’s supply of essential items to be used when they are cut off. The commission expressed concern that community caches could be expensive and prone to wastage if not properly maintained (Australian Government, 2020) p232.