Australia burns in the recent unprecedented bushfire season.

Australia burns in the recent unprecedented bushfire season.

The new normal

The new normal

Community
Aa

Images from Australia's summer of bushfires shocked the world fuelling an outpouring of emotional comments on social media and from Australian politicians but for those experienced in disaster recovery and bushfire management the fires were no surprise.

Aa

Former fire chiefs went public in November last year saying they'd been trying to meet with the Prime Minister since April to discuss the issues of climate change and an impending bushfire crisis.

The former fire chiefs, including former deputy commissioner of NSW Fire and Rescue Ken Thompson, share the belief that whilst the extended bushfire season is likely our new normal, the situation isn't hopeless and there is much that can be done to mitigate the risk to communities and severity of the blazes.

Recovery

Meanwhile, as Canberra establishes a National Royal Commission into the Black Summer bushfires, the numerous communities affected by the fires have started to work towards recovery.

One of the communities affected by the bushfires was Lake Conjola on the New South Wales south coast. The small community was hit on New Year's Eve by a fast moving fire that gave them no time to evacuate and resulted in them being cut off for eight days.

Since then the community has been working towards recovery and are fortunate to have as a local Major-General, Peter Dunn, a retired senior officer in the Australian Army and former Commissioner for the ACT Emergency Services Authority, to lead the recovery effort.

Peter was the coordinator of the Canberra bushfire recovery in 2003 and since then has worked as a consultant and is the author of Preparing to Lead in a Crisis.

Retired Major-General Peter Dunn and his wife Lindy are helping lead the bushfire recovery in their hometown of Lake Conjola.

Retired Major-General Peter Dunn and his wife Lindy are helping lead the bushfire recovery in their hometown of Lake Conjola.

Community key to bushfire recovery

Peter emphasises the importance of not just rebuilding housing but also the community. For the Lake Conjola residents the first step after the roads reopened and the power was back on was to reconnect with each other and rebuild their community.

This has seen Lake Conjola start the recovery process through healing, running community events, barbeques without speeches or politicians, just neighbours coming together to catch up, to get it off their chests.

For Peter, it is not just a case of rebuilding, or working with the various government agencies to get the groundwork started, it is about renewing the community ties to ensure they are stronger in the aftermath.

He has placed significant emphasis on ensuring the mental health needs of everyone in the community are met, encouraging neighbours to get together and to talk about their concerns.

Amongst the many initiatives being held in Lake Conjola are workshops for those needing to rebuild their homes, helping people build to the budget of their insurance payouts and updated building codes.

Funding

One of the most important points Peter makes is the need for additional and ongoing funding for the agencies that help in the recovery process, allowing the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to have staff on the ground and providing reassurance to the community during the process of clearing up toxic waste.

"There has to be a constant confidence building activity ... to guarantee to the community that it is safe and it is insufficient to simply say we are doing this within international standards," Peter said when discussing the removal of asbestos from Lake Conjola.

"That doesn't cut the mustard. It didn't happen (in Lake Conjola) and it caused a huge amount of angst."

Discussing the expense involved in increased levels of staffing for National Parks and the EPA on an ongoing basis to deal with the possibility of these events, he said:

"The staff have been stripped out of the National Parks and government agencies. They're simply not there.. (but) these events are happening with such rapidity, that this is what we can expect and all of these actions need to be planned for in the future."

The bushfires approach Lake Conjola on New Year's Eve.

The bushfires approach Lake Conjola on New Year's Eve.

Communication

The importance of communication was also highlighted during the summer's fires, with many communities given inadequate time to evacuate due to the rapidly moving and changing fire fronts. This is where the residents of Lake Cobargo have taken the decision to create their own evacuation and safety plan.

"There was no planning as to where these safer places should be," Peter said.

"We are developing our own infrastructure master plan to identify the safe places in our community.

"It uses the lake for evacuation to the east, and we will build jetties to allow disabled people to access boats.

"We are doing our own fundraising and the maintenance of safe places needs to be lifted. It needs to be redone, rethought and re energised," he added.

There are also plans to improve the safety of the local community centre, improving the facilities there to ensure it's not just a safe space in an emergency but also becomes the hub of the community, hosting local events such as birthdays, weddings and other social gatherings.

Economy

On bushfire relief for businesses, Peter took aim at the current system of financing for businesses, arguing that the payments should be available to all businesses in fire-affected communities, not just those that suffered physical fire damage.

Future planning

"You're not going to stop the fires, but the first thing when you're planning a response system you need to look at the incredible speeds and ferocious heats and accept that they will occur," Peter said.

"We need to deploy different assets. We need heavy water bombers, large aircraft, and large amounts of fire retardants.

"We need to use satellite imagery and aircraft imagery and hit any fire that starts as hard as we can."

Former deputy commissioner of NSW Fire and Rescue Ken Thompson reiterates these thoughts.

"We're not going to stop the fires, (but) we can do a better job of preparing for future events and of protecting communities and property if the funding and if the planning and resources are there," Ken said.

Both Peter and Ken agree the overriding lesson from the recent bushfires is this is not going to go away - this summer's bushfires were not a freak event, but the new normal.

This doesn't mean the situation is hopeless, they believe, just that we need to plan better, train better, and fund better.

Aa