The Hawkesbury’s Response to the Bushfires

I thanked RFS Commissioner Shane Fitzsimmons for his leadership during the crisis.

Our Hawkesbury Shire was one of the more severely affected areas in the recent bushfires.

Over 160 days of continuous fire operations, at the peak of the campaign there were 2500 to 3000 personnel on the fireground daily, together with multiple air tankers, helicopters and other aircraft.

The Gospers Mtn fire now holds the record as the largest fire in the world from a single ignition point. Adding the fires that merged into it, it consumed over 1 million hectares — about 7% of the whole State. It had a perimeter 1380km long and was larger than 31 countries.

Statewide there were 2,400 houses lost (but, it bears remembering, over 15,000 houses valiantly saved).

Here in the Hawkesbury, 540 rural property holders were impacted, with 65 homes destroyed, 30 homes damaged, plus 55 outbuildings.

Little did we realise, as the smoke (literally) cleared, that within a month we would face a flood, and then a pandemic.

These events may have felt at times that they would overwhelm us. It is important for leaders to remind everyone that the victims of the fires have not been forgotten, and that a range of initiatives are underway to respond to their needs.

Hawkesbury Council’s submission to the Royal Commission into Natural Disaster Arrangements submitted this week has highlighted both the praiseworthy and the “could improve” of our response.

It praises the local knowledge of brigade personnel in the Hawkesbury RFS, the coordination of out of area resources including resources offered from other states, international help, and from the Australian Defence Force. It acknowledged the success of our Community Engagement Protocols; reinforcing State and Local level combat agency information over multiple communication channels.

On the “could improve” list was a focus on telecommunications. Black spots in signal coverage and the loss of landlines from fire and tree damage to overhead cabling affected our emergency response capacity and has been a longstanding issue. Work needs to be done to make cellular towers and exchange points more fire resilient.

On this front, there is already good news, with the Federal Government’s Mobile Black Spots program recently announcing new funding for three new cellular towers in the Hawkesbury, at Central Colo, Colo and Putty, and community input requested for the next rounds of the same program. I encourage you to make a submission by the deadline of June 19th.

Another significant lesson is the need to ensure that our fire defences are supported by the provision of modern and spacious headquarters to manage emergencies and provide logistical support. The need for a new, purpose built  Hawkesbury Fire Control Centre is a fight I’ve written about before, and which I will continue to advocate for.

The Federal Government has announced significant funding for tourism in the Hawkesbury (yes, tourism will recover after Covid-19!) through the Regional Tourism Bushfire Recovery Grants scheme.

Applications remain open for the Federal-State government’s Small Business Bushfire Support Grant. The grant provides up to $10,000 for businesses that have been indirectly impacted by the fires and whose revenue has declined by 40% (relative to the previous financial year).

At a more local level, Council is continuing to assist with the cleanup effort, especially in Bilpin, at Colo and in the Macdonald Valley.

52 inspections have been undertaken with 31 properties deemed to be eligible for clean-up assistance, with 12 properties already completed. Inspections and removal of dangerous trees are ongoing.

Property owners seeking to rebuild are being provided with a concierge service, and Council is developing a ‘Rebuilding and Repairing Buildings Damaged by Bushfire’ factsheet, which will be available through Hawkesbury Council’s Bush Fire Recovery Page.

Bushfire Recovery
The Council’s resource page for bush fire recovery.

If you’ve been affected by fire or flood, it must feel like other more recent events have pushed you out of everyone’s minds entirely.

You haven’t been forgotten.

As (hopefully) the impact of COVID-19 subsides, we can return our focus to getting the Hawkesbury back on its feet after both the fire and the flood.

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