ABV Bushfire Reslience Project: The Cobargo Experience

When the head and the heart are still reeling from trauma, a set of steady hands and sturdy feet may be the difference between standing still or moving forward. 

No doubt 2020 was a difficult year and for many Australians life’s challenges continue. However, for one small community in the NSW Southern Tablelands, it was the last day of 2019 that left a town traumatised, scorched and scarred far beyond any impacts a future pandemic may hold. 

The devastating bushfires that ravaged the Bega Valley township of Cobargo and the surrounding communities on New Year’s Eve 2019 heralded a season now known as the Black Summer Bushfires.  

Only three days after the unprecedented fires, Cobargo residents were unwittingly thrust into the international media spotlight when a last-minute visit by the prime minister failed to connect. The attempted outreach was shared on screens around the world and amplified the heightened emotional pain of a freshly traumatised community. According to locals the visit was ‘divisive’ and ‘abrasive.’ 

On the night of that now infamous exchange, serendipity stepped in at a dinner being held some 300kms away in the town of Yass. Australian Business Volunteers (ABV) CEO Liz Mackinlay was among the dinner guests. 

‘The PMs visit attracted a lot of attention and was a topic of discussion at dinner,’ Liz recalled. ‘I suggested that in six to eight months’ time, when the politicians and media have left town, and the community is left exhausted and still traumatised, they will likely need support to move forward with the building back better that they envisage.’  

As fate would have it, the dinner conversation led to connections being made between Liz and Zena Armstrong who was president of the Cobargo Folk Festival and went on to become president of the Cobargo Community Bushfire Recovery Fund Inc. That connection was the catalyst for a game changing partnership that continues to this day. 

Jump forward to September 2020 and as predicted, Liz Mackinlay and her ABV staff drove into Cobargo to begin a three-day scoping visit with a broad range of local community groups.  

Developed through 40 years in the field, ABV’s framework for supporting bushfire affected communities encompasses international disaster recovery theory and practice, world-class business volunteer management, business continuity planning and resilience, trauma-informed engagement, and place-based planning approaches.  

ABV’s support delivery model typically involves a combination of key stakeholders; corporate partners who contribute financial support and leadership; skilled volunteers from corporate partnerships, ABV’s skilled business professionals who donate their time to support the projects; and the not-for-profit or community organisations that require skilled support. 

From October 2020 to February 2021, more than 30 skilled volunteers were sourced, onboarded, and matched to local community groups and small businesses to support them in their rebuild, recovery, and resilience building initiatives. The volunteers came from ABV’s pool of skilled business professionals and its partners, who also led the program; ABV’s key strategic partner NAB, as well as IAG insurance company, the Australian Catholic University, and Arup global advisory, design, planning and engineering group. 

The beneficiaries of ABV’s Bushfire Resilience Project included Shona Taranto and John Walters of the Cobargo Quaama Business Recovery Group Incorporated, an inspiring duo of community champions. 

At first glance Shona and John may be strange bedfellows borne of adversity, but any generation or gender divide is countered by a joint passion and commitment to getting things done, to making things happen. The dynamic duo agree that they are intellectually matched and able to grasp the big picture concepts inherent in a community’s recovery. Together, Shona (the brains) and John (the grunt) create a formidable pairing. 

Prior to the fires the two had rarely crossed paths. John was an occasional customer at Shona’s main street retailer, The Dispensary, where he would buy salad greens that Shona grew on her property or, once a year, don his fire helmet and ask for donations to the local fire brigade services where he was president and an active firefighter. Among his many responsibilities, John held the hose.  

Tragically, Shona lost her shop in the fire. John, who was actively involved in the battle on New Year’s Eve, took on the role of Cobargo RFS community coordinator for the next month or so. When a not-for-profit wanted to talk with local businesses as a group, Shona and John created the Cobargo Quaama Business Recovery Group (CQBRG). John was elected vice-chair, and Shona, in the absence of anyone else putting their hand up for the position, offered to stand for the position of chairperson for the group. “I agreed that if nobody else could do it, I would volunteer my time for 4-6 weeks max to get the committee up and running”. Shona is still chairperson of the group more than 18 months later and is humbled and honoured to be in the role and supported by the committee. 

Shona and John share personal recollections of the fires and their aftermath describing ‘weeks of black skies and no sun’, a continued ‘midsummer with active spot fires all January and half of February.’ The event is variously described as ‘catastrophic’, ‘unprecedented’, and ‘apocalyptic’. 

And yet, despite the devastation, the Cobargo community united on a path to recovery. It’s a trait too often borne of necessity, if not tragedy. 

‘The reality in the country is that if something has to get done often the individual has to do it themselves,’ Shona said. ‘If anything, we need to learn how to outsource a little more.’ 

John recalls the spirit of Cobargo being very strong during the initial recovery period. Locals directly affected by the fires were living in the show grounds. Neighbours were making friends with neighbours they hadn’t met previously. Residents continued to support each other long after the media had left town. 

In reality, the community was left with the visual scars still exposed in the commercial heart of Cobargo. As John has stated often ‘it was like a giant dagger had been stabbed in the heart of the town.’ 

‘Cobargo has always been hard working and constantly punches above its weight,’ Shona said ’That's certainly true for the groups who had been doing some amazing work – a true testament to the community.’ 

But fractures had started to appear. Through no fault of their own, the community and the various bushfire related organisations that had been created started to silo based on specific needs; a greening group, a renewable energy and resilience group, or a family-owned property with aspirations of becoming a museum.  

Individuals, community groups, businesses and local government authorities were putting their hands up for financial support of their ambitious recovery plans. In fact, more than $1.6b worth of applications would eventually be submitted for a pool of just $250m. 

The community was worn out and worn down. Tired. Exhausted. And now dealing with the overlap of a global pandemic! As the heads and the hearts tried to manage conflicting goals and general fatigue, ABV stepped in with steady pairs of hands and sturdy feet to offer their service and support those in need. ABV staff also relocated to the area for a month to help support the community project leads and ensure the 30+ volunteers were closely linked and well supported to deliver effective remote support. 

ABV’s preparedness to sit with, walk alongside and actively listen to communities, rather than prescribe solutions, allowed them to deliver targeted and immediate support where it was most needed. During a 3-day Visioning Workshop held in November 2020 Liz and the team brought a diverse range of community stakeholders together to develop a shared vision of ‘building back better’ and greater coordination between community projects. This Visioning Workshop and subsequent Stream Two activities were co-funded by NAB, IAG, Arup and the Cobargo community. 

‘Liz did an extraordinary job to bring the community together through compassion, empathy and an ability to engage with us that encouraged ownership of ideas and solutions. Liz built on the strong social capital that already existed and helped us expand our thinking and reframe some of the challenges we faced. Having Liz present provided a forum and mechanism for the community to unify around shared goals. 

While the township of Cobargo was recognised as a thriving little country town, there were issues that meant some buildings were commercially unviable and the town was struggling economically after three consecutive years of drought in the local region. In a lesson that's as relevant for bushfire recovery as it is for a post covid world, the plans to rebuild Cobargo were courageous and ambitious. The proposed Village Square, New Post Office and Market Hall projects as community led initiatives with innovative concepts to rebuilding for the future, received praise from many government agency representatives as setting a gold standard in bushfire recovery. 

‘Liz spent as much time listening as she did talking. And she didn’t talk until she’d listened,’ recalls John. ‘She was facilitator, catalyst, enabler and coach. ABV provided an essential glue that stopped the community from falling apart.”  

When Shona and John became aware that their own council had submitted grant applications for multimillion dollars towards projects of that didn't directly impact on Cobargo, Liz stepped in and filled an advocacy role through the media. ‘Let’s just say that Liz’s approach was more streamlined and tempered than some of my words to the media,’ John recalls. 

In the ten days leading up to the deadline for funding submissions Shona and John put their individual lives on hold and worked around the clock to complete the CCDC grant submission. While ABV volunteers had been instrumental in helping to tell the Cobargo story, frame the funding cases, offer assistance with various aspects of the  grant submission the final leg to the finish line was up to the hearts and heads of the community – in this case Shona and John who, emotionally and physically exhausted, pushed the final submit button only 18 minutes before deadline for the first project and the submit button for the second project with less than 2 minutes to spare. 

‘The last week or so was very nerve-wracking,’ says John. ‘After sending the submissions I had no nerves left. I went and collapsed in a heap.’ 

On 1 July 2021, Shona called John to check his email. The funding outcomes had arrived. Some smaller projects had been knocked back. However, the two main town center redevelopment submissions had been successful, granting the newly formed Cobargo Community Development Corporation Limited $9.62 M funding to rebuild both sides of the main street Under the CCDC project proposal. 

‘I think Cobargo did exceptionally well,’ says John. ‘There’s an old proverb that says a crisis is an opportunity riding a dangerous wind. We managed to find a silver lining in the dark clouds of the black summer bushfires. Now we can make the community’s rebuild vision for Cobargo a reality.’ 

Liz and the team from ABV and its partners are currently working with the CCDC Limited to assist in delivery of further community consultation ‘We walked alongside the community and listened to their needs. We’ve supported their emerging priorities and facilitated place-based planning.  This is Cobargo driving their future with ABV walking alongside,’ said Liz Mackinlay. 

‘Our work here is not finished and it’s far too early to raise the mission accomplished banner. We will be heading back to Cobargo in the coming weeks to once again provide the arms and legs, the hands and feet necessary to support the community of Cobargo, to deliver on its brave new vision.’ 


Page Break 

Anna Durward, a new member of ABV’s pool of skilled business professionals, was one of the volunteers who supported the Cobargo Bushfire Resilience Centre to write submissions for recovery funds. Anna had been through a similar experience in bushfire-affected Port Macquarie where she successfully applied for funds for her community. 

Anna brought with her a breadth of knowledge, skills and experience having worked for a decade in project management and design within the sustainable building industry, earned a Master of Science: Strategic Leadership towards Sustainability in Sweden, qualified as a trauma counsellor, and aspired to volunteer with ABV on her way to working for the UN one day. 

Inspired by the people she was meeting, Anna attributes the community’s success to its agility and resilience. ‘Resilience is being able to endure life’s challenges in a regenerative way.’ Anna explained. ‘We have to keep an open mind and allow for emergence; it requires a preparedness to be agile and adaptive, to hold on to hope and optimism, to not get beaten down.’ 

Anna worked remotely to avoid adding pressure to the community, providing support to several community organisations while also supporting the development of two large funding applications for the Cobargo Bushfire Resilience Centre, both of which were successful. 

‘Regenerative leadership demands constant renewal, circular regeneration, moving, evolving. As a volunteer we must be willing to undertake whatever tasks are necessary with professionalism compassion and respect. You ask a lot of clarifying questions; practice deep listening and learn to read between the lines,’ Anna says. 

‘It was really rewarding, and I wish other skilled businesspeople would get involved. Volunteering can be a remarkable opportunity to meet and work with new people and cultures, to build connections and relationships that are meaningful, and to learn and grow as an individual and a leader.’ 

Page Break 

Zarnie Robertson, a Senior Associate at NAB, provided remote business mentoring and grant application support for the Cobargo Bushfire Resilience Centre (CBFRC) and the Cobargo RSL Sub-Branch. 

Zarnie supported the CBFRC to prepare grant applications that would allow the CBRC to undertake the Badja Forest Rd Fire Oral History Project - the cornerstone content for the CBRC. He also worked with Cobargo RSL Sub-Branch President Glen Morrison to formulate an approach for assessing viability of various options for redevelopment of the historic RSL Hall. They focused on how the redevelopment aligned to the RSL’s mission statement and community objectives, its financial viability and concerns of local residents regarding heritage protection. 

’Following my first conversation with Glen he mentioned that he had slept soundly for the first time in months,’ Zarnie says. ‘I hadn’t felt that we’d ‘achieved’ anything major in our conversation but for Glen the process had become overwhelming. Engaging with me gave him an impartial and supportive person to share his concerns and challenges, allowing him to reset and move forward in a more positive mindset. It was incredibly moving to hear this’. 

‘The lived experience of the people in affected communities is likely to be completely removed from your own. Everyone I engaged with in Cobargo was inspiring.  I would tell anyone considering volunteering that you have an opportunity to have a real, positive impact on people’s lives and that is priceless.’ 

Report from Cobargo Bushfire Resilience Centre for ABV Annual Report  

The Cobargo Bushfire Resilience Centre emerged as a community response to the Badja Forest Rd firestorm that destroyed much of our region on NYE 2019. Our not-for-profit organisation aims to honour the events of the Badja Forest Rd fire and to support the social and economic recovery of our region, while empowering our local community to become more fire safe and more resilient for the future.  

We were introduced to the Australian Business Volunteers in the aftermath as we started to prepare grant applications to facilitate the rebuilding of the main street of Cobargo, which was decimated by the fire. Since our first meeting, our organisation has been upheld by a scaffold of support given to us by a myriad of volunteers from ABV who have contributed to developing our grant applications, business case, future centre programs, community consultation events and have been there to supportively listen to us as we vented our frustrations.  

We are excited that, as a result of that assistance, the Cobargo Bushfire Resilience Centre was successful in securing funding under the BCRRF to undertake the Badja Forest Rd Fire Oral History Project in a unique partnership with the National Library of Australia. In July, our organisation received the news that we had also been successful in our application to the BLER fund to construct a Centre on our main street. The Centre is significant to the recovery project of the main street and its construction will return a beating heart to our community. Both of these projects have the capacity to affect the lives of community members for decades to come and we are grateful for the assistance ABV has provided to make this happen. Thank you.  

Rhonda Ayliffe  


Cobargo Bushfire Resilience Centre

Subscribe to Our Newsletter

Welcome. Sign up here to receive email communications about current ABV news and events.
ABV is registered with the Australian Charities and Not-for-profits Commission (ACNC).
This is a block of text. Double-click this text to edit it.
Flag of Australia
PO Box 514
Strawberry Hills, NSW 2012
+61 412 827 133
Copyright 2024 Australian Business Volunteers.