Australians Impacted By Bushfires Reflect On Crisis One Year On
This time last year, Australia was in the midst of a widespread bushfire crisis brought about by record-breaking temperatures and months of severe drought.
More than 12.6m hectares, an area almost the size of England, was burned in blazes that destroyed homes and lives as well as killing almost three billion animals.
The crisis spanned Australia’s entire summer, prompting the label ‘Black Summer’, and the impacts of the devastation are still evident today.
New South Wales (NSW) was the worst-affected state, with blazes damaging more than 5.4 million hectares. For comparison, the NSW Rural Fire Service has said that an average fire season in the state is typically at around 300,000 hectares, ABC News reports.
Railie Douglas, from Wingham, NSW, lost her home in the Hillville fire that spread in November 2019. She had been away on a camping holiday when she heard about the blaze and decided to drive home to collect some of her belongings in case the fire raged too close.
Railie went to stay with one of her daughters, but her husband, 63-year-old Guy, decided to stay at home to try and protect the property from the flames.
Recalling the terrifying situation, Railie told UNILAD:
I told [Guy] he’d get trapped. He refused [to leave]. I grabbed what I could fit in my already almost-full car, including my blue heeler, Smudge, and left.
I got to the outskirts via Wingham and turned back as the smoke was so thick and choking I could feel an asthma attack was imminent.
Guy used a bulldozer to cut firebreaks on the hillside by the couple’s home, and seven fire crews worked to try and save the property. They managed to keep the fire at bay that day, but the next day the wind changed direction and engulfed Railie’s home.
You can see footage of the blaze below:
Guy, who had built the property, escaped and could do nothing but watch it burn. Railie and Guy had been hoping to move in with Railie’s dad while they rebuilt their home, but just days after losing their own home Railie’s parents’ house nearby also went up in flames.
The property had been engulfed by fire and resembled scorched earth. Everything was black, except the crowns of the tallest trees. Even some of them were completely burned, going up like torches.
Tony Fathers, from Woodford in the Blue Mountains, thankfully didn’t lose his home to bushfires, but he scrambled to collect his belongings when a fire began to spread in the local area last November. The fire raged across the valley from his home, and he was told to evacuate before being allowed to return home later that night.
Describing the scene to UNILAD, Tony said:
By this time the fire had crossed to our side of the valley, and burned a good chunk of our bush. I was awake all night, watching embers, and thinking I was seeing homes burn down. Absolutely awful night.
Only a few hundred metres down the valley has actually burned but all the ridges are black. Up to and through backyards.
In the aftermath of the bushfires, Railie said her local community ‘immediately took up the challenge’ of dealing with the crisis. Her local rotary club coordinated a response in conjunction with the local Mid Coast Council, and those impacted by the fires qualified for an immediate payment of $1,000 to help them get back on their feet.
The Australian Government established the National Bushfire Recovery Agency (NBRA) to coordinate a national response to rebuild communities and livelihoods, and committed $2 billion to helping those affected get the support they need with recovery efforts.
The broader Australian community is said to have helped contribute to recovery by taking holidays in affected areas and buying local produce, and Railie recalled how residents from Newcastle, Sydney and the rest of Australia came forward with donations for impacted residents.
People who had lost their homes were able to stay in caravans and campers, and Railie herself received a message from a neighbour to say someone had offered out their mobile home as emergency accommodation. The kind strangers refused to accept any money for the offer, and Railie and Guy moved in the following week.
They stayed at the mobile home until January 20, when they moved into a rental home they borrowed from friends.
Though Tony didn’t end up being displaced by the fires, he noticed a change in atmosphere in the aftermath, explaining that people have been ‘friendlier and chattier’ since going through the ordeal.
Railie described her community as ‘shellshocked’, but said they ‘rallied magnificently’. The local Rotary raised more than half a million dollars, which was distributed among those who had been impacted by the blazes, in turn enabling people to ‘keep [their] body and soul together [by] paying for food, fuel & emergency supplies’.
Many people who lost their homes were reduced to living in cars or tents, though money raised through donations helped them move into purpose-built sheds in the following months. The NBRA explained, ‘Australians want to make the most of opportunities to build back better, to meet communities’ future needs and improve their resilience.’
It goes without saying that the affected communities had enough to deal with after the devastation caused by the fires, but one crisis gave way to another in the form of the coronavirus outbreak in March. Railie and Guy were in their rental accommodation when the pandemic began, at which point they ‘battened down the hatches and pulled up the drawbridge to lick [their] wounds and heal in isolation’.
A local outreach centre dropped off food hampers, and Railie received additional support in the form of regular calls from a psychologist. These calls came after Railie told locals at a Bushfire Emergency meeting that she felt ‘bitter’ about losing her home.
The NBRA has noted that coronavirus served to exacerbate the impact of the fires by ‘testing people’s resolve and resilience’.
It wasn’t until October this year that Railie and Guy were able to buy a new home with their house insurance. Rebuilding on the family farm was no longer a viable option for the couple, so they moved to the middle of Wingham, where they are unlikely to ever be touched by a bushfire.
Railie’s grandparents bought the farm in 1952, so she described moving away from it as a big loss. After they get settled into their new home, Railie and Guy plan to welcome a family friend who is at risk of being homeless to stay in a cottage on their property.
Stephanie Clayton, a volunteer with the State Emergency Service in NSW, told UNILAD she spent a long time cutting down burnt or burning trees in the wake of the fires, and that the federal government allocated funds to pay for demolition and clearing of the properties that had been destroyed in the bushfires in preparation for rebuilding efforts.
In spite of losing their home, Railie commended the community for coming together in the crisis, noting that they had access to ‘an embarrassment of riches’ through donations, and describing the spirit as ‘outstanding’.
Rebuilding efforts are being undertaken using ‘most advanced technology and thinking’, according to the government, and farmers are said to be ‘already adapting to more regular, longer dry periods and fire seasons’.
In November this year, the National Bushfire Recovery Agency released Journey to Recovery, a document detailing the collaborative approach to recovery following the 2019–20 bushfires.
The document noted that the scale of the bushfires meant ‘recovery is beyond the resources of any one jurisdiction’, and therefore required a national response. It explained that ‘local businesses contributed to the effort, charities mobilised, and local governments activated their emergency management plans’ while the fires were still burning, and almost one year on ‘this activity continues’.
Journey to Recovery explained that some communities in Australia were ‘disproportionately impacted’, either because of how badly the fires hit or due to their unique needs. It acknowledged that recovery will be ‘different for each community’ and ‘will happen at a pace that reflects their needs’, but ultimately it endeavours to ‘help communities build resilience for the future’.
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