Kathryn Maxwell - 4 February 2020
Kathryn Maxwell addressed the Council regarding the Eurobodalla bushfires at the Public Access Session on 4 February 2020.
SHASA presentation to ESC
My name is Kathryn Maxwell and I am the President of the Southcoast Health and Sustainability Alliance (SHASA). Thank you for the opportunity to speak to you today about the ongoing Eurobodalla bushfire crisis.
SHASA is a community group that focuses on practical actions to improve the community’s capacity to deal with the challenges associated with climate change.
Many in the community have been impacted by this disaster. We understand more houses have been lost in the Eurobodalla than any other local government area. We wish to pass on our condolences to those who have lost loved ones, and extend a helping hand to those who have lost homes and possessions. Everyone has been emotionally impacted by this event. It is, and will continue to be, a very difficult time.
Many people in Eurobodalla have done and continue to do extraordinary things. We want to thank the Council staff who have selflessly dedicated themselves to serving the community, often when their own homes were at risk. For example, we understand that the water and sewerage staff worked tirelessly to ensure that we had clean water and treated sewerage throughout this crisis.
Many people helped their neighbours and friends with acts of kindness and generosity. Members of the Bodalla community independently set up a distribution centre in their Community Hall to ensure people had access to essential supplies. These difficult times have brought out the best in so many people.
The purpose of this presentation is to help us all learn, as a community, from what has happened during this bushfire disaster and to improve our resilience and capacity to respond in the future. In addition, we have some questions for Council that have emerged from our many conversations with the Eurobodalla community over this summer.
Our questions are directed to our Mayor and Councillors who make up the Eurobodalla Shire Council (ESC) because they are the people who set the strategic direction and priorities for Council staff to follow.
Roles and preparedness
The recently released Productivity Commission - Emergency Management report clearly recognises that local government has specific emergency management responsibilities in contributing to a range of measures to manage risks to their communities and the environment, as well as in coordinating community resources and capabilities in responding to emergencies.
As the Productivity Commission notes, a key strategic role for Councils is to prepare for emergencies that have the potential to adversely impact their community, such as the current bushfire disaster. When Councillors are elected they sign up for this role. Councillors provide strategic oversight and identify such emergencies and to help Council staff best prepare for, and be able to manage, disasters such as the one we are currently experiencing.
The Mayor, Councillors and senior management need to be able evaluate risk based on expert advice. This is to allow Council to assess and plan for events based on how likely they are to occur and their consequences. The current bushfire disaster fits the risk category of ‘high’ likelihood with ‘catastrophic’ consequences. However, Council’s current Local Emergency Plan describes bushfires as only ‘likely’ with ‘minor’ consequences. Bega Valley Council, on the other hand, recognises bushfire events to be ‘almost certain’ and of ‘major’ consequence, perhaps because they acknowledge that Climate Change is increasing the frequency and intensity of such events. Councillors should heed expert advice and undertake risk planning for such a predictable event under a Climate Change scenario.
The Mayor, Councillors and senior management should also set the priorities to help Council staff meet statutory and regulatory responsibilities. There are strategic resourcing and priority decisions made by Council that influence what Council staff can achieve and how they can respond to natural disasters. The Eurobodalla Bush Fire Risk Management Plan (BFRMP) was last endorsed in September 2011. According to NSW Government legislation, there are statutory obligations in relation to public safety and asset protection to review the plan every five years. This has not occurred.
There is also the Eurobodalla Council’s statutorily-required bushfire prone land mapping program that informs the Bush Fire Risk Management Plan which is incomplete and has been in draft form for four years. There is a similarly outdated 2011 Eurobodalla Water Supply Drought Management Plan. Councillors should be facilitating and monitoring the capacity of Council staff to complete reviews and update these important strategic documents.
Major community concerns that have emerged from this current crisis include resourcing and management of evacuation centres; information about, and at, evacuation centres; ongoing communication issues including the over-reliance on Council website and Facebook pages; and, a closely related issue, the loss of power; internet, NBN, radio and mobile coverage. While Council is not responsible for all these aspects of emergency response and management, Council does have a significant role to play and represents our Eurobodalla community in dealing with those other agencies and the spheres of government who are responsible.
An open, independent and forward-looking review by Council of how Eurobodalla Shire has fared in the 2019/20 bushfire season will allow Council and the community to reflect on what has happened and better prepare for the future.
There are legal and moral dimensions to a crisis. We have seen the best of our community as people have risen to the moral challenge and assisted each other on an individual and voluntary organisational level. These people don’t have a legal responsibility - they are rising to a challenge. We have a right to expect our Council, led by our elected representatives, will do the same.
As individuals and community organisations, we don’t have the capacity to look across the plans and activities of government agencies to understand how best to respond in a crisis. We can’t do shire-wide strategic planning. We don’t have the resources or the communication capacity to access and disseminate the information that should be in the public domain when a crisis hits. This is the role of our elected representatives.
We know from other examples that Councils can rise to the challenge of emergency response. They can work with the other spheres of government to determine how best to contribute to complex emergency arrangements and manage for the community who rely on them.
We want to see our Mayor and Councillors accept the same level of responsibility and embrace the need to work with council staff, community and other agencies to provide good reliable information; to have robust current plans in place; to provide safe haven for those in need; to plan for and resource places of safety; to rise to the moral and legal challenge of caring for all of our community in times of need.
Some issues for Council consideration
- Now is the time for an independent thorough review of Council’s response to the bushfire crisis in Eurobodalla Shire which includes experiences and input from the community. Can Council please advise the time frame and mechanism for such a review?
- In light of the Mayor's publicly broadcast statement during the crisis that we all need to ‘follow the advice of the RFS’, when will our Mayor and Councillors take the advice of the RFS and revise our Local Environment Plan to ensure no further developments occur in highly hazardous bushfire prone areas and future development is focused around existing town centres?
- Given the local and national experiences of this summer, when will Councillors reconsider a motion declaring a Climate Emergency?
- Currently there are a number of people responding to perceived fire risk by illegally cutting down trees and leaving them on the ground. Given expert advice on managing fire risk, when will Council make a public announcement that it is safer and more bushfire wise to leave trees standing than to cut them down and leave them on the ground where they dry out becoming much more flammable and magnifying the bushfire risk? Illegal cutting down of vegetation should not be ignored, particularly where it is on public land.
- SHASA asks that Council follow the leads of the Bega Valley and Shoalhaven City Councils and waive tip fees for green waste to encourage people to clean up yards and neighbourhoods in preparation for further extreme bushfire conditions.
SHASA would appreciate written answers to these questions in the near future.