AUSTRALIA – Victims say deadlines for the royal commission into Australia’s summer bushfire crisis are too tight and that many are unaware the probe is underway.
The commission, which is aiming to hand down its findings before the next fire season, has received only 400 submissions so far, prompting calls for an extension.
Cobargo Rural Fire Service volunteer David Rugendyke, who lost his home in the deadly Badja Forest Road Fire on New Year’s Eve, said many victims were not in a position to have their voices heard.
“I don’t think a lot of people know about the inquiry,” he said.
“A lot of people still don’t have communication.
“I think it’s been sprung on people and I think that nowhere near enough people are aware of it and can make submissions to it.”
The commission was announced on 20 February and will examine the preparedness for, response to, and recovery from disasters.
Calls for submissions to be delayed
Veronica Abbott, the recovery coordinator in the town of Quaama, 15 kilometres south of Cobargo, said hundreds of bushfire victims were still living in tents and caravans with limited access to telecommunications.
“There should be an extension of the timeframe,” she said.
“The commission really needs to think about how bushfire victims are going to be able to tell their stories when many are still offline.
“There are people who really need to be able to contribute to this and their opportunity has been taken away.”
A spokeswoman for the royal commission said the deadline for submissions had already been extended by four weeks until 28 April 2020.
She said commissioners remained committed to providing advice to government ahead of the 2020-21 bushfire season and as such, no further extension was planned.
The commission was forced to abandon its face-to-face hearings as a result of COVID-19, but said that its work would not stop.
Ms Abbott urged the commissioners to “think outside the box” and consider all communication methods to reach bushfire victims.
“It’s a cop out to say ‘everything is online,'” she said.
“It isolates people from being able to contribute to the story that needs to be told.”
‘We need them to share’
Bega Valley Mayor Kristy McBain said it was important her community was heard.
“We need people to share their experience with the commissioners,” she said.
“How they felt, what they went through, and what the aftermath has been like.
“It is the people on the ground that have witnessed what has happened, whose evidence, whose insight and whose real world experience will make the difference.
“I want the royal commission to really get into the detail of what has happened in local communities.”
Mr Rugendyke said he hoped the royal commission would bring about significant change for his community.
“I’d like to see policy in place for the next disaster regarding mental health, clean up, Indigenous burning practices and general preparedness,” he said.
There are fears that important evidence will not be heard by the Bushfire Royal Commission, with the deadline for submissions set for later this month
Fire-affected residents say some people are still living in tents and don’t have access to telecommunications
The royal commission has received 400 submissions about the Black Summer fires, which claimed 33 lives, burnt 10 million hectares and destroyed 3,000 homes