Victims and frontline workers say bushfire findings don’t go far enough

30 October 2020

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AUSTRALIA – I was running my own architectural practice from home in Gipsy Point until we lost everything in the black summer fires.

My practice continues but it operates from the kitchen table of a holiday rental in Mallacoota. I was on the wharf during the fires – the loss of everything, the trauma of the fire itself and the impact on the environment has affected me profoundly.

Being separated as a community during Covid restrictions has made it that much harder.

What resonates most with me from the royal commission’s report is that everyone needs to do their part, from individuals through to the Australian government.

The onus has long been on private landholders to mitigate the risks of fire but we are experiencing less predictable, more severe fire events that cannot be fought at the micro level alone.

If everyone was contributing to reducing the effects of climate change and agencies were properly resourced to carefully manage fuel loads and acquire proportionate levels of fire suppression equipment and personnel, we may have stood a chance. Sadly these are not new recommendations.

The rebuild process has been slow, in part gaining the mental capacity to face it and the cleanup and bureaucracy of moving forward. Our plans have been stuck in the planning process for four months as we try to balance protecting significant vegetation with defendable space.

I am not fearful of living here, I understand the risks. But I do fear for the next community to face this if nothing changes. – Christy Bryar

On the first Friday of September 2019 we lost seven houses in our street in Beechmont in the Gold Coast hinterland. Thanks to the fireys, we were lucky not to lose any lives. By Sunday 8 September, we also lost our original family home, Alcheringa, near the historic Binna Burra Lodge, which my family has run for generations. At the top of the hill, the main lodge buildings and 40 cabins were destroyed at the same time.

Almost 60 people lost their jobs at Binna Burra and many left the area. The fires were a significant loss of family history as my grandfather Arthur Groom was one of the founders of Binna Burra Lodge in 1933. My grandparents and parents were heavily involved in the lodge’s growth over the last 86 years and I spent my entire childhood there. To see it burnt to the ground was heartbreaking, especially for my 81-year-old father, Tony.

I personally feel like the last year has been a total marathon – and it hasn’t ended. For the first time next week, I am finally finding the time to see a counsellor. Our community has been through all the stages of grief and we are exhausted but also in various stages of recovery.

Only two of the seven houses in our street have been rebuilt and some are still struggling with the new bushfire ratings and therefore higher building costs. Re-insurance and higher premiums are another issue that is only just starting to play out.

Meanwhile, the intense reality of the first few weeks still floods back whenever we smell smoke or hear a helicopter. The road to Binna Burra has taken a year to rebuild and therefore the demolition of Alcheringa and sections of Binna Burra has only been completed in the last few months. Slowly, the biggest employer on the mountain is re-employing locals and guests are coming back to explore Binna Burra (apartments, camping and cafe) plus Lamington national park (a soul space for me and many others).

Looking through the report’s overview of last fire season’s events, the statistics and natural disaster outlook, it is clear that all levels of government need to act on the recommendations. Why? To be more coordinated than ever for the onslaught of climate-related disasters and for communities to survive ongoing multiple weather events, let alone rebuild from the ones we have just experienced.

I hope the government takes this as seriously as it has taken the Covid-19 pandemic. Get coordinated, communicate, act on the research and help Australians and the landscape survive these ongoing climate emergencies. – Lisa Groom

I am a deputy group captain for the RFS and last summer I was deploying crews to hugely destructive fires, hundreds of kilometres away from base, in the springtime.

I have three decades’ experience in emergency services and last fire season wasn’t normal. The toll on firefighters was enormous.

It seems that every royal commission into bushfires since about the early to mid-1980s has come back with the same finding. It’s just a continual repetition of what should be happening that no government follows. If there’s a recommendation put through for New South Wales to do this, this and this, they don’t do it – and that’s been proven with the Rural Fire Service and Fire and Rescue not going through with a single call centre to reduce call times.

Having a national aerial firefighting capability seems to be the better idea of the lot [in the report]. That way the assets can be federally owned, not state owned, and the assets will be distributed when and if they are needed – the assets won’t need to be brought in from overseas as they are continually at the moment.

If it was a nationally recognised aerial team, the Department of Defence could also be utilised and trained. There’s no reason why defence members can’t be brought up to speed with basic firefighting or village firefighting or advanced firefighting training, which take no more than three days at a time. I find it really disappointing that type of skill hasn’t been utilised to any real extent at all in any bushfire season that I’ve been involved in.

A royal commission means nothing unless the recommendations are acted upon. It can be completely ignored because the royal commission doesn’t override a government or its ministers.

Until such time as legislation is written and gazetted in order to give federal ministers powers over the states, it’s not going to work. – Greg Hodges

I am an emergency doctor with a mass casualty response expertise, based in Canberra. During the summer, I treated patients with respiratory vulnerabilities who were acutely affected by the bushfire smoke, and have since been dealing with consequences personally.

The findings of the bushfire royal commission are welcome in their recommendations regarding our national disaster response capacity.

Given the political reluctance to address the underlying climatic conditions that underpin such disasters, the least that Australians can expect is to have broad systems in place that can mitigate against the scale of calamities being inflicted upon them. The suggested action plan will not be cheap, and it remains to be seen how many recommendations will not only be accepted, but also funded with real, as opposed to imaginary, dollars.

Immediately, I am, like the authors of a recent article, concerned, about the perfect storm of having a major outbreak of Covid-19 occurring in a vast cohort of patients who have been exposed to bushfire smoke. Many friends and colleagues have been left with chronic minor respiratory complaints, requiring medical advice and care.

We have been relatively lucky in Australia regarding the impacts of Covid-19, but ongoing bushfires such as those we experienced last season render us vulnerable and susceptible to respiratory illness, such as the one threatening the world at the moment.

Doctors understand symptoms and disease, and their significance. This report addresses the enhancement of our “response” to a disease, but its scope prevented it from addressing the disease itself.

It’s a bit like mandating excellent first aid in the treatment of firearms injuries, without addressing the issue of why firearms issues are occurring in the first instance.

Many Australian medical colleges now identify anthropogenic climate change as a medical emergency facing us immediately. The findings of this commission are an excellent tourniquet for the shape of things to come. – David Caldicott

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