Dairy News

Fire threat brings priorities into focus

By Jeanette Severs

(By Dairy News Australia journalist from Gippsland, Jeanette Severs)

Do you stay or do you go? What are the things you don’t want to lose? These are the questions and risk assessments many people have been making with bushfires spread across many states in Australia.

At the time of writing, nearly one million hectares of country in East Gippsland has been burned - national and state parks, townships, farms and rural residential areas. This is up on the 800,000ha that had been burnt before last Friday, when we were all informed at community meetings that the fire front was nearly 2000km long.

At our local community meeting last Thursday evening, at Bruthen, I hugged a friend whose house was burnt to rubble (her words) on December 30. They evacuated before December 29 knowing their home was undefendable. I stayed on our property on December 29 and 30, being as prepared as possible and with a fallback plan.

Our adult children are similar ages. We’ve known each other a long time. We’re both involved in our community. I’m no braver than my friend. Her husband is a volunteer firefighter. We (all my neighbours) made risk assessments and decisions.

During the past week and a bit is the first time I’ve spoken to neighbours and local friends at midnight, 2am, 3am, 5am in the morning. When I phoned one neighbour at 5am, I expected him to make a joke - I once told him I don’t talk to anyone before 7am. In other circumstances, he’d probably remember. During that long night of December 29 and 30, I saw spot-fires spike up around us, fire trucks constantly up and down the main road on one of our boundaries, neighbours’ headlights on another hill as they headed off to douse a paddock spot-fire, saving multiple homes on their boundary.

I came home from our community meeting last Thursday evening and thought about what I didn’t want to lose if the firefront hit us or a spot fire started. Like earlier in the week, I’d already told our daughter she was staying elsewhere.

I looked around and packed a few things - photos off the walls, a selection of photo albums, a tablecloth used by one grandmother every Christmas, a cake stand given to me by another grandmother, my grandfather’s ashtray, a cushion. Jewellery. Our daughter’s baby teeth. Four books, which always remind me of the people who gave them to me.
Apart from my work equipment, that’s the whole of my life, apart from people and animals. I also packed a week’s worth of clothes, on the advice of my friend’s husband.

In past bushfire seasons, I have evacuated and stayed away. One summer, I took our daughter to Melbourne’s safety and I returned home for the next two weeks. In 2009, I drove through the smoke and heat of the Black Saturday bushfires to get home before they closed the roads. I spent the next few months interviewing people about their experience of those bushfires.

As a journalist, I’ve worked on many fire grounds, reporting on the fire as it’s been live and dipping into those communities for stories during response, clean-up and recovery. There are stories I still carry with me, some more than 30 years later. Every situation requires risk assessment. I also undertook training to suppress and understand fires, many years ago. I talk to fire scientists and firefighters regularly. I attend the occasional CFA training day. Every bushfire requires a new perspective, a new assessment, a new decision.

The impact and devastation so far from the bushfires in East Gippsland are on an unprecedented scale. This is extrapolated across NSW and Queensland, in communities that have been impacted, like we have, for the past few weeks. I have many family and friends who have direct experience of the dragon, some for the first time, for others it was a repeat from a previous season.

While the national focus has been on evacuating people sheltering on the beach of coastal communities, dairy farmers have been dumping milk. They have had to do this because their processors haven’t been able to get road access for milk trucks to pick up this, the end product, of farmers’ livelihoods.

Dairy farmers have had pastures, fences, fodder supplies destroyed by bushfires. Many have battled, successfully, against the red beast, to save their homes and dairies. After battling bushfires, they have turned up to their farms to milk. Some farmers are now dealing with animal welfare issues. They have been impacted by power outages at the dairy. Many of them have also been dealing with many years of drought.

The Victorian Government has announced a new agency, Bushfire Recovery Victoria, with an initial funding injection of $50 million. Its key focus is infrastructure recovery and rebuilding and to respond to these and future bushfires. Premier Daniel Andrews said the new agency would be funded in perpetuity, and community priorities would be decided in partnership with local government agencies. However, he flagged bridges, kindergartens and schools as priority replacements.

Ken Lay, Victoria Police Chief Commissioner 2011-2015 and current Ambulance Victoria board chair, will lead the new agency.

Since the past few days, there are more bushfires spread across Australia and we as a nation are trying to respond to them with limited resources. The critical questions we have to ask include:

How will we manage recovery?

How do we ensure remote communities are resourced when a bushfire leaves them isolated and without power, communications, basic amenities and provisions, including fuel to power their pumps to use water to respond to ongoing bushfires, given so much of Australia is made up of remote communities?

What are we going to do and change now, to manage a broad landscape impacted by bushfire in 20 years’ time, given that this future landscape will be a monoculture of vegetation only 20 years old?