As East Gippsland moves from the bushfire disaster to the farreaching effects of COVID-19, a series of meetings are being held for locals to give feedback on Victoria’s fire preparedness and response.
The independent inquiry into the 2019-20 Victorian fire season, announced by the State Government on January 14, held a meeting in Bairnsdale on Tuesday night.
Despite more than 40 registrations, just 20 locals attended the meeting chaired by facilitators, where the Inspector General for Emergency Management (IGEM), Tony Pearce, was on hand to listen to each person who was prepared to speak.
Bushfire victims told stories of defending their houses, of the confusion and difficulties roadblocks created, a nursing home ‘forgotten’ by authorities during evacuations and council’s apparent rigidity and lack of humanity in its response.
A lack of structure for evacuations was raised, with mention of the mass text telling people to evacuate not containing any information on where people should go.
East Gippsland Shire Council copped flak from all directions regarding its responsiveness and communication.
Members of the two grassroots groups that formed during the crisis, namely the Lucknow Memorial Hall group and East Gippsland Rotary Fire Aid (EGRFA) were present as were local Country Fire Authority members and some local business people.
It was said the town protection plan was written from scratch despite there being previous versions, which contained major flaws and omissions.
People also told of those wanting to volunteer to assist victims being turned away from the council relief centre.
“I was ready to roll to assist and I had no response from council,” EGRFA chair, Pearl Findlay-James said.
“If council had embraced us as volunteers its response would have been much quicker.
“People are still asking for assistance now.”
Likewise, Wendy McPhan, of the Lucknow Memorial Hall group, said she went to council first to volunteer, then got in touch with Jodie Crane to start the hall relief effort.
The group helped clothe and feed 700 to 800 people who attended the hall and also sent supplies to many burnt communities using local networks.
“The red tape and bureaucracy to do with council is astounding,” Mrs McPhan said.
“At one point, a council worker rang us and told us they would clear the hall within 48 hours, and another phone call three hours later saying they would clear the school hall. I told them it wouldn’t be happening.”
The anonymous stories, themes and information collated will go to the report, which is due to the minister by the end of July.
“The focus is on fire preparedness and response,” Mr Pearce told the small audience.
He said the inquiry’s terms of reference were broad but the July 31 deadline was meant to ensure the plan could be implemented by next fire season.
IGEM will visit 70 communities over eight weeks and the information will be aggregated, with 18 public meetings held.
According to the IGEM website, during the week IGEM meetings were held in Cabbage Tree, Club Terrace, Genoa, Mallacoota, Orbost and Nowa Nowa.
More meetings will occur on March 30 at Cann River, Bemm River and Lakes Entrance the following day, at Buchan followed by Bruthen on April 1 and Omeo on April 2.
IGEM will provide the second inquiry report into the effectiveness of progress with relief and recovery arrangements to government by June 30, 2021.
Submissions to inform Victoria’s 2019-20 fire season inquiry need to be provided by April 15, 2020.
See the IGEM website for details.
IMAGE: Inspector General for Emergency Management (IGEM), Tony Pearce, will listen to each person who is prepared to speak about their bushfire experience at meetings across the region over the coming weeks. He met with people in Bairnsdale on Tuesday. K1564-72 (2019)