Hearing the voices of the impacted

Hearing the voices of the impacted

In an effort to get the right help to those who need it for bushfire recovery, chair of the newly formed Bushfire Recovery Victoria (BRV) agency, Ken Lay, met with agricultural producers affected by bushfires in Bairnsdale last Thursday.

Producers from across the region were brought together by Food & Fibre Gippsland acting chief executive officer, Dr Nicola Watts, to meet with Mr Lay who has spent the couple of weeks since the authority was established visiting communities in East Gippsland and North East Victoria to determine exactly what is needed.

Mr Lay says it is important the national and state authorities work together to get the right help out to the communities.

“What I am hearing is that there is a lack of understanding about what help is available on both national and statewide levels,” Mr Lay said.

“The Premier and the Prime Minister have both made it pretty clear that we need to fix that.”

Appointed to the role by Premier Daniel Andrews when the extent of the devastation of the state’s fires became evident, the BRV chair says the expectation of the Premier, and the Prime Minister through the head of the National Bushfire Recovery Agency, Andrew Colvin, is that this will be seamless with the people who need help only needing to go to one person to get it.

“People should not need to worry whether it is state money, commonwealth money, or a combination of both. They need help, they need resources, we just need to get it them,” Mr Lay said.

He said the government has been “super”, as had the private sector in establishing the BRV in making sure it has the “best and brightest” on board.

“From the Premier and the Prime Minister there is an understanding that local problems need local solutions developed by local people and wherever possible local resources will be used,” Mr Lay said.

“There is an absolute commitment and a focus on making sure local resources are used. That’s important for the economic recovery of the area.”

Mr Lay said people are struggling.

“There are people out there who are deeply traumatised, and I suspect some don’t yet realise they have been traumatised,” he said.

“They are trying to work their way through a sometimes complex system.”

Among the key issues are the clean up so redevelopment can begin, mental health and rebuilding.

There is a real focus on looking at solutions to navigate a difficult system as people rebuild their lives, businesses and homes with a local face to help locals rather than phone and internet.

Mr Lay said they are trying to “keep away from the heavy handed government coming in and saying trust us”.

“I’m hearing that over and over again, that’s just not what the community wants,” he said.

“There needs to be support from the government, but the community needs to own it.”

Mr Lay has met with state member for Gippsland East, Tim Bull, and Federal Member for Gippsland, Darren Chester, and he says both have a good grip on how this will impact the community.

“Recovery is going to take many years,” he said.

In bringing local producers together to meet with Mr Lay, Dr Watts said she was appreciative of the opportunity to share their stories and get across their needs.

“The comments Mr Lay made around local problems needing local solutions absolutely resonates with us,” she said.

She said Food & Fibre Gippsland’s sole interest is to support the sustainable development of the important food and fibre sector.

“It underpins our regional economy. If our food and fibre economy is not thriving, communities aren't thriving,” she said.


It was a diverse group of producers who met with Mr Lay on Thursday. Among them was an apiarist who has lost beehives, bees and has a real concern for the loss of forestry and the implications of deduced pollination opportunities. He wants to see national parks opened to apiarists. Biosecurity with bees all in one place now is also an issue.

A Cann River farmer spoke of her separation from her husband for more than three weeks as she remains stuck in Bairnsdale while he is back on the farm trying to get fencing up so water and feed to can get to their stock.

A young vegetable farming family who lost their home and property in Wairewa spoke of the delays faced in production, the devastation of losing the family home and the issues relating to living in town that they had hoped to avoid by living out of town.

A transport company boss spoke of the hundreds of thousands of dollars being lost due to the highway closure with minimum detours of 750 kilometres endured, the biggest more than 1100km.

Sarsfield wildflower farmers told Mr Lay of their decimated venture that took them 15 years to establish with 14,000 plants destroyed. It would take them four to five years to get back on track, but is that what they want to be doing as they get older, working two to three jobs once again while the plants regrow?

A farmer at Wingan needs feed for his stock, but he can't get it through.

The fires come during an already difficult period of extended drought across the region. It is an added complexity for farmers already struggling.


On the top of everyone’s list of concerns though was the closure of the Princes Highway and the natural vegetation that burnt either side of it, so close to the road’s edge, that has led to its unsafe condition.

The Australian Defence Force and arborists continue to remove the fallen and dangerous trees but it is taking too long for those who need to get back to their properties and families and get supplies through to stranded.

Mr Lay’s job now is to take these significant issues on board, take them back to his BRV team, and get to work.

“It’s easy to commit, the trick is to implement it and keep your eye on the ball. We’ve got to get this right. We need to make sure the service is properly resourced,” Mr Lay said.

“Local communities should be angry if we don’t.”

IMAGE: Chair of the newly formed Bushfire Recovery Victoria agency, Ken Lay (third from right), heard the stories and difficulties faced by agricultural producers from across East Gippsland in Bairnsdale last Thursday. K43-245