Tuesday, 16 February 2021
South Australia: Bushfires
At around 4 pm on 24 January a series of fires broke out at Cherry Gardens, Scotts Bottom, Mount Bold and surrounding areas. Conditions were hot and windy, and the fires were burning in a heavily vegetated and populated area of the Adelaide Hills. My heart sank when the alerts began. It's only been a year since the Black Summer fires, and I'm sure I wasn't the only one experiencing an 'Oh, no, not this again!' feeling. Overnight the blazes burnt more than 2,700 hectares and destroyed two homes, 19 outbuildings and two vehicles. The next day, Adelaide experienced its wettest January day in nearly 50 years. The deluge contained the blaze. We were extremely fortunate.
At community fire meetings the perennial issues of congested evacuation routes, power outages and accurate messaging were raised. This fire didn't reach the damage threshold of a declared disaster and trigger support from government agencies, and this raised other questions. For community leaders, it highlighted once again that community expectations about the response from the three levels of government vary significantly and the message around bushfire action plans isn't reaching everyone.
This messaging problem is not new but it's exacerbated in my electorate because of population migration. A third of the 39,000 people who live in the Adelaide Hills Council area are new to the area every census period. The Mount Barker District Council area is a high-growth area. Its population is around 33,000 and is forecast to reach 55,000 by 2036. Most of the newcomers are young families. They move up from the southern suburbs of Adelaide seeking a tree change or relatively affordable housing on what was once farmland. This means they may have had no experience of the Ash Wednesday bushfires or any subsequent fires. They are not cognisant of the risks and are unsure how to prepare.
In response to the bushfire royal commission, the federal government has pledged to do more about strategic leadership and resource-sharing in times of natural disaster. However, it is the states and territories that continue to be responsible for the protection of life and property and recovery services. I'm concerned that too much is expected from our volunteer firefighters given the financial resources actually allocated to them. If they are expected to not only fight the fires but educate the community as well, there needs to be more funding. I also maintain that, if individual landowners are being warned not to expect a CFS truck to be stationed outside their property, they should be prepared if they decide to stay and defend and they should have some support to obtain firefighting equipment. In my community it has been the farm firefighting units who have been the last line of defence in many of our country communities.
In January this year the government set aside $2 billion for the National Bushfire Recovery fund, more than two-thirds of which has already been used on emergency response and recovery programs. One aspect of this fund that is missing, I believe, is funding for truly local projects. I understand there is a community and wellbeing grants component to the fund, and that works on mental health and resilience at a local level. However, I don't believe this has the scope for practical, community led projects. I would like to see the government introduce a grant scheme similar perhaps to the Stronger Communities Program, which, as we all know, allocates $150,000 per electorate for up to 20 small capital projects—a local disaster resilience program allocating perhaps a similar sum to share in any electorate that has experienced natural disaster in the past five years, whether that is fire, flood or cyclone. This program would provide aid to build community capacity and encourage communities to engage with each other and take responsibility at a local level for their preparedness. For example, in my electorate the Scott Creek community used their own fundraising and grants to set up a community recovery trailer, with a generator, lights and food, to help out in the event of a bushfire or extended power outage. Everyone has a role to play in building community resilience. The best thing government can do is empower communities to help themselves. I believe setting up a local disaster resilience program will encourage local initiatives. I call on the government to consider setting aside funds in this federal budget for this valuable program to build our community capacity for the coming bushfires, the coming disasters, that we know will happen in Australia.