Editorial July 7th 2023
Welcome to this week’s editorial, According to the World Meteorological Organization Australia is set for a hot, dry El Niño. Before all the climate denialists start to thump their keyboards I suggest they read on. Fact: Summer is coming. Fact: Summer gets hot. Fact: if there isn’t much rain the bush gets dry. Fact: Dry bush is dangerous. Already our bush is drying out. Fact: Lots of dry bush after a few years of wet means there is MORE BUSH. Fact: Our region comprises around 3,421.7sq km of land, between Durras and Wallaga Lake. Around three quarters of this mountainous region is national park or state forest. Fact: Somewhere in the Eurobodalla over the coming summer there will be a forest fire. Unknown: Could it be of a scale that we had a few years ago? We really have no idea but yes, it could be. According to former Fire and Rescue NSW Commissioner and Councillor with the Climate Council Greg Mullins the Climate Council’s El Nino media briefing that “we’re set for a bad year” warning that “three years of rain” from La Nina have created the perfect storm for fire conditions this summer.
Given all the irrefutable facts above and the warnings that are coming from those who know best about fires it is time to ask the question “What have we, as a community, learnt and put into action in preparedness for the next fire onslaught? In March 2020, nearly three and a half years ago, the Eurobodalla Shire Council Submission to the NSW Government Inquiry - 2019-20 Bushfires opened with: “The extreme fire event experienced across Eurobodalla over the 2019-20 summer caused unprecedented damage to the natural and built environment, burning approximately 80% of the Eurobodalla LGA, and sadly cost three lives. It is inevitable that bushfires will again be experienced within Eurobodalla in the future.” While Council’s recommendations to the Royal Commission were primarily focussed on big picture changes around planning, funding and resourcing they also managed to include: “ix) the NSW Government should review the arrangements for evacuation centres including the training of additional local NSW Government personnel who work within the EOC and evacuation centres. Catering arrangements should also be reviewed. x) NSW Government fund recommended improvements to the resilience and preparedness of Council owned buildings used as evacuation centres.” Where are these evacuation centres ? According to the out of date Eurobodalla Emergency Management Plan Emergency Management Plans (State, Region and Local), Sub Plans and Supporting Plans are public documents. However, they do not contain contact details or locations of operations centres, evacuation centres or recovery centres. This and other sensitive information is maintained separately and has a restricted and controlled distribution. Meanwhile in Bega Valley they are happy to advise the locations of their evacuation centres. Why all the talk around evacuation centres? If you cast your mind back to the 2019-20 fires you might recall that the essential information people had regarding where to go when advised to evacuate their homes was “bugger all”. Communications at the time were woeful and there was false messaging being cast across social media for want of any information at all. In the end clarity was given that the evacuation centres were at Hanging Rock Community Centre, Moruya Basketball Court and Narooma Leisure Centre. All three were ill prepared as evacuation centres. If there were requirements of a facility that met a standard to serve as an evacuation point none of these buildings would have passed muster. Alas, over the coming weeks they were put into service each facility failed. Council’s submission to the NSW Government Inquiry - 2019-20 Bushfires advised that the Eurobodalla Emergency Operations Centre coordinated the establishment and de-establishment of evacuation centres in Batemans Bay, Moruya and Narooma based on the fire predictions from the RFS. They then advised that the operation of the evacuation centres was coordinated by the NSW Department of Community and Justice with volunteer agencies including the Salvation Army, Anglicare and Red Cross performing their respective roles . According to their submission early January 2020 saw up to nine and half thousand people register through the three evacuation centres. The submission did not mention the failures of these facilities when it came to sanitation, nor the immense heat, the poor security, the inadequate resourcing and the failed protocols that should have been put in place and audited periodically to ensure readiness by both Council, lead agencies and local volunteer groups. Council’s submission said of the lack of preparedness “It is important to remember that the arrangements in place are intended to keep people safe and to manage the expectations of the community in the difficult circumstances prevailing at that time. This was perhaps best summed up by the Manager of the Moruya Evacuation Centre when addressing the many hundreds of people at a briefing where it was highlighted that ‘this is a life boat situation – we are not on a cruise ship’. He may well have been referring to the gastro that was now ripping through the facility, most likely caused by failed toilets and inadequate ablution and sanitisation provision. Council added in their submission “The fact that people remained well in these circumstances was predominately due to the volunteers that ‘stepped up’. With no power, limited toilets and showers, no bedding, extreme temperatures and significant overcrowding, it is very fortunate and a credit to those people who took control of the situation that a severe outbreak of illness did not eventuate”. During the emergency, in addition to the three evacuation centres, we are also advised that many more of the community made use of public reserves, golf courses and clubs. What was clear then is that the community DID NOT know what to do when told to evacuate. What is clear today is that the community STILL DON”T know what to do, where to go, what to take and not take, when advised to evacuate. Council’s submission to the NSW Enquiry offered that “The RFS should consider additional community education in this respect to help improve the self-reliance of the community”. What we do know is that little, if any spending has been done to improve and prepare our evacuation centres. What we do know is that the Eurobodalla Local Emergency Management Plan 2019 is well overdue for review given that it was activated in response to an emergency in 2019-20 and that deficiencies were identified. It is rumoured that Council has enlisted an ex-council staff member to come in from retirement to assist in the oversight of Eurobodalla’s Emergency Plans. While the revision of the Emergency Plan is stated as the responsibility of the Local Emergency Committee what is missing is community involvement. Eurobodalla Council may well welcomed and participated in the NSW Bushfire Inquiry but have failed to engage with their own community who remain at a loss when it comes to being clearly informed of the evacuation facilities that will be available to them, the officially recognised Neighbourhood Meeting Places, the supporting venues that will be serviced with back up power along with food, water and trained agency personnel. The last emergency crisis brought a succession of kneejerk actions, poor communications and proof of poor preparation. Given that the fires WILL return one wonders what measures have been put in place behind the scenes by Local, State and Federal governments as there is little if any evidence on display of proactive preparation for the next event. What is your plan? Until next—lei Below: One wonders what is happening to the Surf Beach Emergency Precinct given that it is NOW July 2023.
Yet in December 2022 the latest news was : December 2022 - We are using heavy plant to get the site level and ready for the new facilities. We should have the bulk earthworks all done by Christmas. As at July 7th 2023 the site is still little more than a hole in the ground. This is concerning given that one of the key recommendations made in the 2020 NSW Bushfire Inquiry to upgrade and improve emergency infrastructure Finally, after eight years of campaigning by the Eurobodalla community, and by the example shown during the bushfires of its failures an announcement jointly made by the Federal Labor Leader, Anthony Albanese Labor and NSW Labor leader, Chris Minns. In February 2022 during a by-election for the seat of Bega the Eurobodalla region was given a commitment of $25 million to an Emergency Operations Precinct in Moruya, including a much needed Emergency Operations Centre. Over a year later suitable land acquisition is being presently arranged. Given the fact that we now approach an unknown summer it is inevitable that Eergency Operations will be forced to return to the sub-optimal Moruya RSL Hall and that the community will be forced to evacuate once again to sub-optimal centres.