Resilient Australia: Communities across the country rebound after bushfires

27 October 2020

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AUSTRALIA – There has been a lot to deal with in the past year. First the drought, then the bushfires, then the floods, and now COVID-19.

A year on from when it all came to a head with the worst fire season on record, resilient communities around Australia are putting the pieces back together.

Residents in East Gippsland, Victoria, have had their fair share of challenges over the past 12 months and for many it seems never ending.

The region has endured a prolonged drought, devastating bushfires that charred more than 320,000 hectares of land, and now locals are grappling with ever-changing coronavirus restrictions.

But for the co-owner of the hotel in Marlo, Russell Bates, the only way to stay afloat is to take each day as it comes.

“We were pretty fortunate compared to others as we didn’t burn down, but it was more of an economic impact for our town.

“A lot of people have forgotten about the drought that was prolonged and extensive throughout East Gippsland … and we sort of stepped out of that and straight into bushfires and now COVID-19 and that has really decimated a lot of the tourism up here.”

The popular venue is usually filled with customers on its large outdoor deck that overlooks the famous Snowy River where, on a nice day, pods of large pelicans come out to roost on the sandbanks of the Marlo foreshore.

But the days on the deck took a turn when the venue underwent a deep clean that forced a swift shutdown after a couple from Melbourne tested positive to COVID-19 after dining at the pub.

Co-owner Rachel Jones said the business became more than just a pub through the town’s adverse circumstances.

“It’s been the most stressful thing we’ve been through, but in a small town like this we’ve kind of become like a community service where people come to collect their takeaway and escape social isolation for a quick chat with us,” Ms Jones said.

Although the pub was operating at less than half its capacity, Mr Bates and Ms Jones remained hopeful.

“These communities are resilient. We have to be, we’ve got no choice,” Mr Bates said.

“We are just really hopeful there will be a domestic tourism spike with eased regional restrictions now, and all we can hope for is a really strong rebound in the next 12 months.”

It’s been nearly a year since a bushfire ripped through the small, remote hinterland town of Bobin, on the NSW Mid North Coast, destroying almost a third of its homes, as well as the local school.

The Bobin community hall president, Peter Schouten, describes how it impacted the village.

“Everybody has sustained some sort of damage, buildings, fences, water infrastructure, all of those things have been affected.

“We had a record drought last year and on top of that we had the devastating fire. Soon after that we had torrential rain that caused some flooding, and then the COVID-19 pandemic … I am wondering, what’s left?”

Mr Schouten said the recovery and rebuilding process was moving very slowly, but residents were helping each other stay afloat.

The Bobin Public School is again thriving after being rebuilt and the community hall, which escaped the blaze, has become a rallying point.

“It’s a community that has always been very strong, and I think one of the things that glues the community together is the Bobin hall where we all come to socialise and gather.”

Mr Schouten said community working bees were providing support to those who needed a helping hand.

“We send out teams of volunteers to help with people who are struggling a bit and can’t quite manage with maintaining their property, to help with lawns, build fences, chop wood … and it is remarkable how many people turn up on those days,” he said.

“That’s just one little indicator of how strong it is here.”

Mental health grant funding has been used to launch a community art project to create a mural on a storage container behind the hall.

Mr Schouten, who is a prominent Australian wildlife illustrator, said it was an uplifting project that had been embraced by residents, including school children.

“I asked for community help and we have had an amazing turnout — and a lot of people who have never painted before — and they were asked to come up with an image for the mural. Again, we just have record numbers of people showing up to help,” he said.

The Bobin School of Arts Hall has also become the base for a regular sewing class, started by Deanna Oxley.

“It’s a chance to get together and just put some smiles back on people’s faces,” Ms Oxley said.

“In these hard times, it’s nice just to go back to those simple things. I think it’s making a difference.

“A lot of ladies lost a lot of things including their sewing machines in the fires, so we picked up a lot of second hand things. We even have some men show up … we then have a lovely lunch together outside.

The northern NSW community of Nymboida is a village of just under 300 people.

Nestled in the foothills of the Dorrigo Plateau, it’s a place of pristine natural beauty — renowned for white-water rafting along the Nymboida River.

On November 8, 2019, what is described by locals as a wall of fire tore through the close-knit community — destroying 94 houses and damaging 17.

Almost no resident was untouched by the tragedy; it’s the type of moment that can make or break a community.

But Nymboida stood strong.

Laena Stephenson was one of those who lost her home, but almost a year later reflected on the resilience of Nymboida.

“I had many things affirmed that I already knew: how important it is to come together as a community and to try to avoid the whole ‘us and them’ and, you know, pointing fingers … or looking at other people who may have more or less than yourself,” she said.

Ms Stephenson and her husband, Dave, are heavily involved with the Nymboida Camping and Canoeing Centre, which was quickly transformed into the ‘Helping Hub’ in the weeks following the bushfire.

Volunteers went about collecting and distributing donated goods and food from the hub, as well as providing meals, meetings and advice.

Later in the recovery process, the centre homed Blazeaid volunteers who remain today.

Ms Stephenson said the centre would soon host an event to mark the anniversary of the bushfires, in the hope of continuing to help the community recover and heal.

She said every local’s road to recovery was different but, for her, the trauma had made her savour where she lived.

“One of the big lessons for me of this fire event was how connected I am with the land,” she said.

“I lost my house, I lost all my mother’s possessions, my father’s possessions, my husband’s parents possessions, my kids lost all their things and we are all back home and I realise how much my connection is with the land, rather than stuff that we’ve accumulated in life.”

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