The rain has come. Paddocks are green, dams are full and the smoke has cleared. Most of the fires that monstered us over summer are either out or at least no longer posing direct threats to properties. The community healing process has begun as we count the cost of a national disaster for which, we now know, our government and the resources that depend on government funding, were unprepared.
Lessons have been learned: at personal, community and national levels.
We learned about the nature and importance of leadership as NSW RFS Commissioner Shane Fitzsimmons stepped up to fill the leadership void left when the Prime Minister, Defence Minister, NSW Deputy Premier and NSW Emergency Services Minister all decided to take overseas holidays while the country was on fire. Not that these people don’t deserve holidays but being elected or appointed to high office (and the salaries that go with them) also means that personal sacrifices may need to be made. These people are happy to take the pay, happy to bask in the limelight when things are going well; not so keen to make the sacrifices and take the responsibilities.
Premiers Berejiklian (NSW) and Andrews (Vic) remained at their posts, both working long hours to keep their respective states informed and assured that their governments were abreast of the situation.
We learned that our local communities are where we can turn in a crisis. People opened their homes to evacuees and accommodated other people’s pets and precious possessions. The volunteer firefighters in our regions worked round the clock alongside firefighting teams from interstate and overseas. Friendships were forged in the flames that will never be extinguished. The indomitable ‘Mozzie Squads’ became a familiar sight with their utes and tanks, fighting spotfires and supporting the RFS with their local knowledge and can-do approach.
We also learned just how vulnerable we are.
Now is the time for the Big Conversations: while the memories are still very real and very raw. As communities we need to talk about sustainable systems. Supermarkets carry only enough food for about five days. In the towns that were cut off and isolated by fire, supermarket shelves were bare within two days and power, fuel and water supplies were cut, leaving residents and visitors stranded.
We know that this summer’s disaster will happen again. Maybe not next summer, maybe not the one after, but it will happen. This is the result of climate change that was predicted twenty years ago and could have been averted. There’s still time to slow down the effects, but that will take concerted governmental action. However, while governments refuse to acknowledge the problem, much less do anything about it, it’s up to communities to act.
How much food can be produced in a small town? How many beds are available in the event of a crisis? How much storage space is available for preserved food, bottled water, gas and other supplies? What professional services are available?
We have discovered the great good that comes out of great tragedy, but we must not let the lessons go unheeded.