Episode One - Buchan prepares for the fire.
The Black Summer fires threatened Buchan for weeks before they arrived. The town used the time to get as prepared as possible.
Kate Hodge, CFA volunteer
Anne Brewer, Buchan Bush Nurse
Suzanne Davies, former Neighbourhood House Coordinator
Theme music and occasional other contributions by Spoonbill: https://soundcloud.com/spoonbill
Podcast photo courtesy of Anna Fuhrmeister, age 11, Sarsfield.
Landing page photo by Jen Osborne.
Episode One - Script
I’m standing on the hill above Buchan Valley. It’s July and the valley is green from winter rain.
As a visitor I could almost ignore the fact that this was one of the places burned during Black Summer, when it seemed the entire eastern seaboard was on fire, along with several other places around the country.
Almost ignore – except, of course, for the kilometres and kilometres of burned forest I just drove through to get here. And the skeletons of burned trees lining the hilltops all around.
Buchan township below is home to some 300 people. When you include the surrounding area that goes up to around 550. Most people know the town and valley because of the famous Buchan Caves, popular with tourists. The district is also dotted with farms. A couple of timber mills closed in recent years.
The town streets are quiet. There’s a roadhouse, a general store, and the pub with a few contractors at the tables.
Take a right and there’s the kindergarten, the Neighbourhood House, and the rec – or recreation reserve.
I’ve come to find out how different communities experienced the fire. That covers a lot of ground – how they prepared, how they responded on the day, and how they’re going now.
I have a few reasons for doing this, which I’ll get into as I go.
Everyone I meet has plenty to tell.
Pretty much from early December it was always a question of not if the fire was going to come to us because we had four major spaces around us that had big fires and a huge amount of fire in the landscape. It was pretty much just a question of when, then.
That’s Kate Hodge, a member of the local CFA and the SES, as well as numerous local committees.
Surrounded by fire for around six weeks leading up to Christmas, and with many peak fire days in that period, Buchan worked hard to get itself organized.
One of the elements I want to explore is what this preparation looked like. It’s blindingly obvious to say that if a community is prepared it has a much better chance to survive and recover.
But what are the crucial elements that make this work at a community level?
DELWP and CFA had done a lot of work with earthmoving equipment to clear spaces and to try and make sure that in the town zones that there was as much fuel as possible pushed up and out of the road, with some varied success in that. But for the most part we had lots of mineral earth breaks which just helped us to get opportunities where the fire slowed. Depending on who you talk to but a lot of the farmers had really worked out and had grazed country quite heavily so that there was not much in the way of fuel. And when it looked like we were having hot peak fire days and there was going to be potential for impact, the farmers would make sure the stock was in those spaces where there was less likelihood for deeper impact if the fire went through, and I know that our stock losses were incredibly low for a fire of the nature that we had.
Everybody had a common goal, which was preparation and preparedness, and trying to make sure we were organized and ready, and there was a lot of conversation around ‘do you have a plan, and if you don’t have a plan you need one, because it’s almost 100% likely that this is going to happen at some stage so you need to make sure you’ve got yourself organized. We’d had a lot of practice runs and we’d done a lot of work getting ourselves to a point where we were as organized as we could be so that when it did arrive, most people were waiting.
Buchan knew it was coming.
The district always lived with fire – even more so in the last couple of decades.
And with each fire, the residents of the valley learned more.
So if I think about it, my first major experience with fires was in either 1965 or 1968, I’m just not sure where it was. But the fire actually came from Mount Elizabeth down towards the town and it burnt the chook-house off the back of our house. So that was my first memory of fires here.
Anne Brewer is the town’s Bush Nurse.
Her job – and what the community has learned about fire over the years – means she has to pay attention to much more than just her own plan.
Now we worked really hard probably for about five years, we’ve actually targeted a lot of elderly or lesser-able people to make sure they’ve got fire plans. And to actually get them to think what the reality of that fire plan is. We’ve had table-top exercises, we’ve had all sorts of things. …So it’s about having those discussions with them, How’s your fire plan going? Have you revisited it, have you checked what’s changed? Don’t forget your mobility’s changed, don’t forget you haven’t got the neighbour you had. Because initially when we did it they said Oh my neighbour will come and help and I said, Well you know, what about things like, if they fire’s coming they need to protect their own stuff? Oh, I hadn’t thought of that. Well, their kids will help then. Well no, their kids aren’t here now. You know, so it’s talking and trying to come up with doable solutions. Because we’ve had a few fire events in a row, a lot of the elderly had realized, or the less able, had realized there was a value in perhaps relocating if the event was significant or if they were in the firing line, particularly those on outlying farms. And people were more prepared in their thought processes, certainly a lot of the families which were away who had to come and pick relatives up. I’d be saying things like, Ok they’re predicting this sort of weather for the next three days, the fire’s predictability is to be here on that day. What’s the fire weather in your area? Because we might have had someone coming from Orbost who needed to pick up somebody from South Buchan, and you don’t want to take them out of the fat into the frying pan, which were some of the things that we had to think about. …I know we had one particular person who relocated probably a dozen times over that period. No belief that there was any danger for them, but was more than happy to go if it was going to make it easier for me not to have to worry about it. And that, you know, that’s a trust thing that you develop over time. And pleasingly this year, a lot of our less-able people were more than happy to leave. They needed a bit of a shove but they actually left. Which potentially it saved lives.
Kate Hodge also highlights how people’s safety depended not just on fighting the fire physically, but on community working together.
So I think there was very much a collective goal to get organized and make sure that you know, everybody had someone who was supporting them. There was also that need to make sure that we had everybody covered as far as who their buddy was going to be, who was going to check in on them, and that there was going to be that opportunity to support people in this space.
‘Who’s your fire buddy?’ ‘How will you react if things change this way, or that way?’ Hearing these details is one of the reasons I’ve come here.
They give an insight into how a community like Buchan has adapted over many years. How well they prepared – not just as individuals, but as a community – decided how well they all survived.
A big fire year was 2003, 17 years before last season’s Black Summer. Many people I asked, spoke about those fires as a marker with many lessons learned.
I remember in 2003 when we were seven weeks of being under siege, and it was coming, and going, depending on the way the winds were and the temperatures.
That’s Suzanne Davies, who lives half an hour north of Buchan, in W Tree.
Back in 2003 she [ran] the Buchan Neighbourhood House – and conditions were very different then.
There were no mobile phones. Not many people could even get the ABC radio. We didn’t have TV! The township had a little bit of TV but it was going wrong, there was always something wrong with it.
Because these fires were growing and growing, and because they’d come so close and went the other way again, but of course they were going to other communities that we knew other people there, so we were still worried about them. I started realising that we really needed the communication for people to make their own decisions on a daily basis, because things were chopping and changing all the time. So I thought… well W Tree actually already had its little phone tree, and I thought Well what a great idea. So I decided to set up right across the district and that’s 12 communities, apart from Buchan, farming communities outlying.
And we obviously connected with people to say, would they consider being a group leader. And that group leader – say if they were in town they would come to the Neighbourhood House, and that photocopier would nearly melt down over seven weeks of the information they would be handing to the people on their branch of the tree which was their street or a couple of streets that they’d take on. And the outlying areas, I managed to get fax machines, and we faxed that information, definitely once a day, sometimes twice, there was even times when it was three times a day. And then they would get on the phone and they would ring. And that last person would have to ring back, and made sure that everyone was getting that information even if they weren’t home.
For Suzanne, one of the biggest changes during the 2003 fires, was greater collaboration between agencies like the CFA, and local community resources like the Neighbourhood House.
It was through Craig Lapsley and a guy called David Emprey and they were both working at that stage in the CFA Communications Team and they’d come to Orbost. [I don’t know how, it must have been the bush telegraph, they found out what we were doing.] I got a phone call from David at first, saying that they were coming over with satellite phones from Telstra because Telstra was lending, loaning in the remote areas to people the satellite phones. And they’d heard about what we were doing there and could they pop in and I said Of course you can, love to see you. They thought what we were doing was a really good idea and they saw the back room said Could we have the CFA Communications Team here and I said Of course you can. Absolutely. So they did, they set up, their own. And then we had strike teams all around the Neighbourhood House
We actually helped them, but they helped us, it was together because we had local knowledge. Because virtually everybody that we knew, from Buchan, Murindal, W Tree Gelantipy, [Seldom Seen?], Black Mountain, out to Bete Bolong, out to Timbarra, [Jilangool], Buchan south, all those communities. It was an extraordinary time under very difficult circumstances.
Phone trees were just the start. They might be less vital with the communications technology and emergency apps of today.
But the impression I get, is that the experience everyone had working together helped make the changes after 2003 far more profound and far-reaching.
These included demanding – and getting – proper local mobile phone coverage, and increasing the role of community resources like the Neighbourhood House.
Here’s Anne Brewer again.
So through the fire preparedness stuff that came through those 03 fires there was a lot of changes. As a town we developed up in 2005 our first community bushfire plan, and we flicked a bit of flood in there as well because we go from fire to flood to fire to flood. But we did that as part of a combined thing within the town, so it involved a lot of agencies. But it’s – we’ve had a lot of licks of fire at Buchan over that time, and we’ve had a lot of time where we’ve waited six to eight weeks being told you’re going to be burnt every day, and it hasn’t happened. And we were aware that complacency was starting to come in, like it’ll never come in it’ll never come in. Some of that’s around the geography, a lot of that’s around the history. And if you look at fire behaviour, it’s always been said that, the fire runs up the hill it doesn’t run down the hill, and we’re down. Doesn’t matter which angle you come from, we’re down. And potentially a lot of the fires through history have gone from one hill over to the other hill and missed the valley
Anne says she also didn’t believe the town would be hit. But she lives right on the edge of the township, and wasn’t going to wait and see if a big fire reached her or not.
My plan was never to stay if the fire was this side of Mount Elizabeth and uncontrolled, I had a sense of when I would need to leave, which I certainly did that Monday morning, I just got up and went outside and came back in and went, I’m going. Now.