South Coast bushfire emergency evacuation centres will look different this year due to COVID-19, extra tourists

18 October 2020

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AUSTRALIA – A drive-through QR code scanner, larger venues and isolation evacuation centres will all come into play if there is an emergency evacuation on the New South Wales South Coast this summer amid the COVID-19 pandemic.

Thousands of extra visitors are expected to flock to the coast due to state borders remaining closed and COVID-19 continuing to hinder holiday plans, but authorities say they are prepared.

Warren Goodall, the emergency management officer for the South Coast, said while COVID-19 had led to a rethink of evacuation procedures, the plans for this year were broad enough to be adapted to most circumstances.

He said his team had spent the winter looking for suitable venues in southern NSW that could cope with large numbers of evacuees and comply with social distancing.

Managing more people than ever

Last year more than 100,000 people were evacuated from the South Coast during the New Year’s Eve period.

Bega Valley Shire Council general manager Leanne Barnes says this year, while they may be expecting even more tourists, she does not expect conditions to be as bad given the summer weather outlook.

She said despite this, COVID-safe plans were already in place for any natural disasters.

“We are asking people to think about what they might do if they need to evacuate, not just look at evacuation centres,” Ms Barnes said.

“Locals would then be encouraged to go and stay with friends or family while visitors would go to an evacuation centre.”

Ms Barnes also indicated extra safety equipment, such as masks, would be on hand for evacuees if necessary, however people with symptoms that could be COVID-19 would be sent to a separate, pre-determined location.

Learning from the past

Currently, education campaigns are being rolled out through tourist operators and accommodation providers around south-east NSW to ensure visitors have a clear emergency plan.

The council will also focus on ensuring locals have a well thought out plan and communication backups, such as a battery-powered radio.

Ms Barnes said these were initiatives that began after the 2018 Tathra bushfire.

“This year, we have the learnings,” she said.

“We feel we are in as good a place as we possibly could be.”

Mr Goodall also said the messaging about evacuations would be improved, with earlier evacuation orders to be issued.

“The Bushfire Royal Commission and NSW bushfire inquiry have identified some communication guidelines for the whole of the state and we’ll adopt those as best we can,” he said.

Some of these recommendations include ensuring there are backup telecommunication methods during an emergency and earlier evacuation orders.

The 2020–21 bushfire season officially began this month.

Key points:

  • Authorities say they are confident their emergency evacuation plans for this summer will work despite COVID-19 concerns
  • People are being asked to consider staying with friends or family rather than relying on an evacuation centre
  • Some areas will have a drive-through QR code scanner so people can be marked as safe
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