Eurobodalla Council: How Fireproof was YOUR Plan?
As we begin to understand and assess the absolute impact of the recent fires across the region we are beginning to also come to terms with the fact that we weren't very well prepared as a community. For months leading up to this summer were were being asked How Fireproof is your Plan? in an incredibly proactive campaign that set to limit the exposure to risk of life and property. Many of us attended our houses, prepared our gardens, assembled our evacuation bags and discussed our Evacuation Plans. We tried to best be prepared. But come the actual event and things didn't quite go to plan. The evacuation advice for tourists resulted in traffic chaos like we have never witnessed before. Exacerbated by road closures, spotting fires that saw sections of the Princes Highway closed, opened, closed and opened again we learnt of queues of hundreds of vehicles sitting for hours on end in the middle of no-where waiting to be allowed through. Cars with families, sitting with little or no water, no communications and no idea of what was happening ahead of them or behind them. This event made us aware how easy it was to become isolated with the Princes Highway and the Kings Highway blocked due to fire. And with these blockages came the next wave of issues: fuel and food shortages. The instruction to visitors to vacate the shire saw an immediate spike in fuel demand to the point where petrol bowsers ran dry. Fuel deliveries were reduced due to highway access and there was panic buying across the shire by locals and visitors wanting to leave. Fortunately deliveries did come through under police escort and via Brown Mountain however the next thorn saw electricity cut which meant the pumps didn't work. Diesel was also running out in the shire, so much so that Council milked its fleet to keep the diesel generator at the Moruya Hospital running. Whilst that was a critical decision it meant that Council's fleet of trucks was now disempowered and unable to be used if required. Adding to this Council also had to sequestre 6,000 litres of diesel from a local bus company to keep their water pumps going as reservoirs across the shire began to run dry. Embroiling itself into this mix of isolation were the many locals in need of health treatments in Canberra, Nowra and Sydney. With the Kings Highway shut and with the Princes Highway uncertain many of our locals had to travel via the Brown Mountain. For those who had to be transported by ambulance it was a long drive further removing valuable resources from the area. Air extraction also became too difficult with Moruya Airport unable to have aircraft land under threat of embers or because of dense smoke. There is little doubt that the community demand for a Level 4 Regional hospital will appear on the table if Council agree to conduction an open and transparent public review of this recent event. Though the region was under Level Three Water restrictions the community decided it would ignore these instructions and began to hose down lawns, fill gutters, buckets and bins and place sprinklers on roofs in readiness for ember attacks. This demand saw local brigades pleading with the community to turn their taps off as they had no water supply or pressure to protect homes if needed. Next we hear that Council has tapped into bore water at Moruya to assist the situation which results in a notice to boil water. Meanwhile across the shire many had now been without electricity for days and over 1000 still remain without power for more than 12 days. The loss of electricity during the fires added their own layer of complexity as it effectively removed our essential communications. Phone towers failed to operate and the internet was OFF. There was no phone other than the rare capture of a far off tower if you stood on one leg. This meant that for 99.99% of shire mobile phone owners there was no access to 000 calls in the case of an emergency. Those not yet plugged into the NBN may have been able to make calls if they retained their copper line. With the uptake of becoming cashless this became the reality for those unable to access ATM's and buy food, fuel and goods for cash. While the community was fortunate to have updates via radios in their cars or battery sets there were times when the radio also failed leaving the community absolutely in the dark of what might be around the corner. While the radio, when working, was a godsend for communication they all too often assumed that everyone had the internet and advised time and time again to keep up to date on the Live Traffic and Fires Near Me websites and Apps and to register for alerts. Whilst many were able to rejoin with their communication devices after Essential Energy did an incredible job of reconnecting much of the shire there was much to be said around the quality of communications coming from the Eurobodalla Emergency Centre. Shire residents, able to access the internet, saw the ever present face of the Bega Mayor, Kristy McBain, presenting live to camera the latest information, supported by her team of experts. For Eurobodalla residents, the primary source of continual, accurate and timely localised updates were from two Facebook pages, The Braidwood Bugle and The Beagle. It was clear that the communication channels were Facebook and the radio. This did present difficulties for the many older residents in the community who were not on Facebook. Statistics from The Beagle website indicated that there were many who relied on websites and emails instead. The community were also becoming aware that the Eurobodalla Director of Infrastructure, Warren Sharpe was wearing two hats; being the Eurobodalla Local Emergency Management Controller and the Acting Council General Manager. Whilst trying to co-ordinate the emergency crews and actions on the ground Mr Sharpe was also still in charge of town garbage pick questions and overseeing any response requirements of Council in regards to water, sewer, road closures and the minutia. There has been no formal statement as to where the General Manager was however it was noted that Mr Sharpe was able to hand over those duties to Acting General Manager Anthony O'Reilly last week. Mr Sharpe is to be commended for stepping in and delivering much needed quality video updates to the community that were distributed across social media. While written updates were more than informative the community responded well to his calm and informed presentations, as they did to his clear summaries during town meetings in Moruya, Narooma and Batemans Bay. While there was little in the way of any formalised Councillor presence at the coalface during the fires Councillor Lindsay Brown was the ever present voice of calm at the Narooma Evacuation Centre overseeing communications and daily briefings for the Narooma community advising of dispatches from the north whilst Clr Anthony Mayne was hands on with two Moruya improvised evacuation centres for Southern Phone staff and for those in need at the Red Door. The Beagle editor, learning of the gasto outbreak at the Moruya Evacuation Centre requested permission to enter the building to see firsthand the facilities on offer and the sanitation controls in place. The request to enter was denied. During the town briefings that followed several days later it was revealed that the evacuation centres were intended for a capacity of 150 each and that 10,000 had in fact visited them. To those who did attend them there are many stories that indicate that the centres were a long way short of being able to accommodate the numbers who arrived. With both Moruya and Narooma experiencing gastro outbreaks there will no doubt be discussions around the causes.
Above: The Moruya Evacuation Centre: The State Emergency Management Plan Major Evacuation Centre Guideline states: A ratio of one shower per 50 people is suggested if the weather is temperate and one shower per 30 people in hot weather. Each individual should have access to 250g of soap. There should be a maximum of 20 people for each available toilet – in the initial phases of the emergency a figure of 50 people per toilet may be used until additional facilities are available. There should be one wash basin per 10 people. Soap, water and hand towels should be available in the toilets for hand washing. Facilities for changing infants and for the safe disposal of children’s excreta should be established, including hand-washing facilities next to the changing station(s). Location of ablutions should take in to account ensuring adequate measures are taken to enhance safety of persons using ablutions i.e. adequate lighting, use during evening hours. The fires also added their own mischief on garbage collection by disabling Surf Beach tip that has resulted in all the shire's waste now being delivered to Brou Tip. The Surf Beach tip waste disposal and green-waste mulch piles are still to be fully extinguished. While the ever present demand remains to remove red-bin waste as soon as possible the Shire's recycled waste and green waste builds with unemptied kerbside bins. The green waste backlog has presented its own problems in that, while residents have proactively raked and prepared their properties they have been unable to dispatch their green waste to the tip, and those that have been able to found they were charged for doing so. As the quiet returns until the next event there has been a marked increase in vegetation being dumped in the bush (and in protest on Council's own forecourt). We are however assured by Council's latest dispatch that "Eurobodalla’s kerbside collection is back on track, but not necessarily up to date yet".
The intention of documenting the above is so that we, as a community, can learn from the experiences and put in place measures that might address any shortfalls in the future. It is more than evident that the fires we experienced were well beyond anything that might ever have been expected and it is more than evident that our preparation was found wanting. It is hoped that Council initiates an open and frank discussion with its community that encourages the community to come forward with their own stories of what worked, and what didn't so that the community, as a whole, might be involved in preparing a Fire Plan for whole community. Certainly, next time around, we would like to be better prepared rather than left for days on end without electricity, isolated from food and fuel supplies, isolated from ancilliary health support, cut off from tele-communications, relegated to boiling water, evacuated to barely adequate facilities and left in the dark for want of timely, localised, emergency information. At the time of writing this there were several councillors who wanted to call an emergency Council meeting to be informed of many of the issues raised above. The request for that meeting has not been supported. As yet there is no mayoral disaster fund with Council advising instead that money donations go to major charities instead. Issues around donations will have to have their own article ...