Southern NSW Bushfire Recovery

The Black Summer bushfire season was exceptional in many ways. The fires, which impacted every state and territory in Australia, scorched more than 46 million acres of land, destroyed almost 10,000 buildings including 3,500 homes, killed an estimated 480 million mammals, birds and reptiles, and resulted in the deaths of at least 34 Australians. While recovery costs are expected to surpass $4 billion, the economic impact is more likely to top$100 billion. 

Cobargo certainly received its 15 minutes of international fame and attracted the ongoing support of ABV, its corporate partners and volunteers. However, the unfortunate reality is that Cobargo is one of myriad communities across the country that needed support. In fact, almost two years after the fire season, small communities across Australia are still reeling from the natural disaster and remain in a state of traumatic disrepair. They have, according to community voices, been left behind. 

Enter George Barrett, an experienced community development professional who joined ABV as Senior Program Manager for Southern NSW in May 2021 made possible by the NSW government Resilience NSW Bushfire Community Resilience and Recovery funding.  

‘My only experience of the fires was when the smoke arrived in the city (Sydney) and while I wanted to help where I could, training to become a firefighter was not an option,’ George says. ‘I’d initially discussed an international role with Liz Mackinlay but when the Program Manager opportunity arose, I jumped at the chance.’ 

George’s responsibilities include rolling out the Community-led Disaster Recovery and Resilience Building program that was built and piloted in Cobargo. Specifically, George has been tasked with supporting communities across four local government areas (Bega Valley, Eurobodalla, Queanbeyan-Palerang and Snowy Valleys). He is currently walking alongside communities in Kiah, Towamba, Wonboyn and Eurobodalla. 

While George had worked with rural and disadvantaged communities in the past, he faced a massive learning curve on arrival into a region he knew little about. Conversely, these forgotten communities had little if any knowledge or experience with ABV. 

‘Many of these communities are quite alternative and purposively located ‘off the grid’, beyond the last electricity pole,’ George explains. ‘These are localities more than townships. A general store. A 12km stretch of road. A caravan park or a few holiday rentals. And many of them had lost everything; 80-100% loss of property!’ 

At the core of George’s greatest challenge was the need to build connections and trust - for him to find and connect with local community leaders, government representatives, disaster agencies and recovery officers.  

‘Quite often I would end up being directed to speak with the local Fire Captain. And although those individuals were exhausted and traumatised, or even hospitalised with PTSD, they were, at the end of the day, the heroes of many communities,’ George recalls. ‘I also spent a lot of time cold calling or on social media, trying to find out who the local leaders were, posting on their personal pages, or dropping into a relevant feed to offer support or foster connection.’ 

Much like the diverse groups that formed hugely productive partnerships in Cobargo, George found himself connecting otherwise disparate local individuals, organisations and councils with each other to solve the community challenges in a unified manner. 

And just like Cobargo, and in fact much of ABV’s work, it was compassion, empathy and objectivity that proved to be among the most valuable attributes for building connections. 

‘I was struck by the personal experiences that people were prepared to share openly. The level of trauma was often overwhelming but the resilience and gratitude that they showed was quite humbling for me.’ 

Within a very short time frame, and restricted through lockdowns, George managed to build strong connections, link volunteers with appropriate organisations and, based on identified needs in the communities, bring corporate partner Arup – a global advisory, design planning and engineering firm – to the table.  NAB’s ongoing support to ABV’s bushfire recovery work underpins the work George is doing and enhances the BCRRF funding. 

George and the communities of Southern NSW have an extremely busy and challenging year ahead. Regional lockdowns during the pandemic have played havoc with the best laid plans.  

Priority projects include the Lower Towamba Recovery Group’s application for funding to rebuild Mustering Ground Rd, Wonboyn Lake Ratepayers Association need to install a 130-metre pedestrian walkway adjacent to the local caravan park, and the rebuilding of the Kiah Community Hall. None of these projects are simple. For example, before the Kiah Community Hall can be rebuilt an off-ramp road is required to gain access to the site. Each of the multi-million-dollar projects will require intensive support from ABV’s highly skilled volunteers, drawn from the community and our corporate partners. For example, Arup’s expertise will be needed to pull together detailed project plans, advise on engineering challenges and provide technical advice.  

Suffice to say, the task at hand is daunting. The rebuilds and recovery projects will take years to accomplish. And once the build is complete, business development and continuity expertise will be required to ensure ongoing viability for commercial enterprises as well as community resilience building.  

The piloting of ABV’s Community-led Disaster Recovery and Resilience Building program in Cobargo has contributed to putting that community on a clear path to rebuilding and recovery. Thanks to the efforts of George, NAB, Arup, volunteers and the communities themselves, communities across four LGAs in Southern NSW can also look forward to a brighter future. However, these positive futures must be tempered with the fact that there are other localities and communities across NSW and Victoria that have ‘been left behind’.  

It will take huge commitments from governments, corporate partners, volunteers and locals to recover from disasters and build community resilience. With Summer around the corner and the global challenge of mitigating the effects of climate change, many communities remain on tenterhooks. ABV remains poised to walk alongside these communities and provide the skilled hands and feet necessary to support the head and heart.

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.