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After the Fires

Gratitude, guilt and gormless leadership. Paul Sefky looks at the aftermath of the devastating bushfire season.

I have lived in my small, owner-built, timber house for over 30 years. It is on 2.2 hectares with state forest on two of its three sides. The other edge is a ridge. Our fire plan was to leave and leave early, and we’d discussed it almost weekly as the relentless drought baked the earth and dried the trees.

It was about 1pm on November 8 2019, when I was travelling from Ashfield to

Woolloomooloo. Checking the RFS Fires Near Me app on my phone, I looked up at

Yarranbella in the Nambucca Valley. The Kian Road fire was looking ominously close to home. “Watch and act” it said. I arrived at my meeting and called Denise, at home, receiving mobile coverage via our trusty copper landline.

“It’s very smoky and getting dark”, she described. “ Try calling the local RFS captain’s house and talk to his wife, she should know what’s happening and call me back” I suggested. A couple of phone calls later, her tone changed. “It’s getting scary…. I think you should get your skates on.” She told me not to take the tar road, and opt for the dirt track instead. The fire looked worse on the main road. Making the decision to head home, I called one more time, but didn’t get an answer.

At the airport, the RFS app told me that there were 15 fires in our area burning at emergency level. When I finally got to the road block I found Denise and her friend, Gail. Denise has evacuated twice. Driving from our house to Gail’s, then to safety in Macksville, we saw spot fires from both sides of the road.

This was not the first or last huge bushfire day this season. Bees Nest, Rappville, Hillville, lost houses, lost lives, Gondwana rainforest burning for the first time – all by early November.

It was a long night. We spent in my office thinking our homes had gone. The RFS app showed our home in the middle of the Kian Road fireground. Around 1:30pm the next day and I bumped into the local Police Inspector buying at coffee at the local café. He suggested that I could now get past the road block. I drove the 20km to

home past 4 lost homes to find my house still standing amoung the burned trees, sheds and soil.

When I walked in the front door, there was a note on my kitchen cupboard. I posted it on Facebook. The post went viral. I spent the next week talking to media all over the world. Many were fascinated that the RFS are volunteers. I explained that they are heroes. Not just Uranga RFS, all of the firies, National Parks, and Forestry men and women.

This was not the first or last huge bushfire day this season. Bees Nest, Rappville, Hillville, lost houses, lost lives, Gondwana rainforest burning for the first time – all by early November.

There was worse to come.

Home after three weeks with restored power, water and phone, we watched in a resigned horror as fires continued to burn around Australia. We were safe and lucky to have a house – an oasis in a sea of black and melted. The response of the RFS and other emergency agencies continues, superlative, with dedication and tireless determination, saving lives and property.

We can be justifiably critical of the political leadership or rather the lack thereof

both nationally, and in NSW. Locally, we were all quietly sensing it was going to happy – there was an unspoken community angst. Some of us knew that we needed to be better prepared. Years of bickering about the drought, cutbacks to national parks and forestry, over-exploitation of our water systems, extending land clearing and aggressive timber extraction timber extraction from our old growth forests are all policy failures that fall at the feet of LNP Federal and NSW Governments.

I do not support wholesale hazard reduction burning or other knee-jerk, ill-informed

responses. I do however make a plea for coordinated, well planned, risk management informed preparedness. At one level, we need an increase in our fighting capacity in terms of aircraft. We need to improve communications. Given our advanced digital technology, we are more reliant on fire-vulnerable electricity supply. Without a copper landline network, we lose essential local capacity.

Fire trails in our forests and national parks should be better maintained. We must

understand and adopt the science around bushfire management in our planning processes. We must better describe the risks and promote common cause to halt the decimation of our native flora and fauna, and to protect our bees.

We need climate emergency informed policy and action. Local voices need to be heard and understood.

PS a call out to Essential Energy workers and their efforts to restore power so quickly, I saw their blackened figures emerge from properties. Great work comrades!

Paul Sefky is a community development worker, President of Nambucca River Branch and Secretary of Cowper FEC


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