‘We were abandoned’: the long road to recovery for black summer bushfire survivors | Australia News
Ahen the morning sun rises over the hills of Wandella, a small hamlet of farms and rural estates near Cobargo, it is possible to momentarily forget the devastation that ravaged the region almost two years ago. Birds chirp, dairy cows roam the valley, and a wet winter has left the area carpeted with lush greenery. The national gaze has long overtaken the black summer bushfires in Australia, and even here at Ground Zero, it is possible to imagine that this day can be forgotten.
But only for a brief moment. When the sun rises above the adjacent ridge, it illuminates row after row of arid trees that betray tranquility. A powerful reminder of the lasting impact of the fire, the trees are standing but have not yet recovered. The same goes for those who inhabit this beautiful but now melancholy part of the far south of New South Wales. For many, the long road to recovery has only just begun.
As he examines this view from the construction site that is his home, Graeme Freedman insists. âI wasn’t going to get burned on this site by a fucking bushfire,â he says.
Freedman and his wife, Robyn, fled on New Years Eve morning, half an hour before the firestorm hit their property. The neighbors stayed behind to fight – and lost their lives. The Freedmans have spent most of the past 22 months trying to rebuild themselves. It remains a work in progress.
As the second anniversary of the black summer bushfires approaches, less than one in 10 families who have lost their homes on the south coast have completed reconstruction. A Guardian Australia investigation found that planning difficulties, labor shortages, underinsurance and lack of government support have left many people stranded in caravans. As support services are withdrawn – the deployment of case managers from state government agencies is over and mental health programs come to an end – local advocates have spoken out against what they see as the abandonment of survivors of the bush fires.
âIt’s so heartbreaking to see people still struggling almost two years later,â says Leanne Atkinson, who is funded by Catholic Social Services to help communities recover. âThere are a significant number of people who fall through the cracks, who live without adequate housing, without access to water and sanitation. “
In two of the worst affected local government areas, Bega Valley and Eurobodalla, nearly 1,000 homes have been lost. Data obtained by Guardian Australia shows that just 7.5% of survivors have finished rebuilding. Across Bega, out of 467 houses that were lost, the council received only 117 requests for reconstruction. In other words, three out of four families have not even started the planning process.
âRebuilding their homes is not as easy as it sounds,â says local MP Kristy McBain. “Paperwork and red tape can be difficult to understand at the best of times, but it’s even more difficult for people traumatized and facing the mental, emotional and physical stress of post-fire reconstruction.”
Shortages are wreaking havoc
The first step in rebuilding involves preparing a development application. It took the Freedmans five months to submit their application – for a one-bedroom grandma’s apartment – such is the complexity of the planning process. After the 2009 Victoria bushfires, laws were changed to make it easier for survivors. This time around, in New South Wales, only minor legislative changes were made. âWe thought some of the lessons from Black Saturday could have been learned,â Freedman said. âWe expected some relaxation in construction requirements, some assistance in planning. But there wasn’t. “
Construction began last November. It has been a slow process. There is a significant shortage of skills and materials in the Australian region. This was made worse by an influx of sea and tree changers during the pandemic, often filled with money for renovations and prompted by the federal government’s house building program. âIt chewed up all the resources,â says Freedman.
Whenever the Freedmans needed a new specialty – a plumber, an electrician, a tiler – there was a one month delay. Freedman says some traders in the area have stopped taking bushfire jobs, which are often out of town, more complex and longer. âThere are just not enough shops and there is a shortage of building materials,â Atkinson adds.
As a result, the Freedmans lived in a small trailer as their rebuilding efforts went at a snail’s pace. At one point, they begged an old tiler to come out of retirement. It was a fluke. Neighbors were told they could get a tiler no earlier than March 2022. A delay can have a domino effect.
The fire was so intense that underground infrastructure – pipes, wiring, sewers – had also been destroyed. Because it is not covered by typical insurance policies, the Freedmans lost $ 100,000 out of pocket. The increase in material costs due to the higher fire resistance rating has also meant that most survivors are significantly underinsured. A recent report from the Insurance Council of Australia admitted that underinsurance was a “real and significant problem” in areas affected by bushfires.
Freedman has raised these challenges with government at all levels. âThere is no one to listen,â he says. Where money can solve problems, there has been help – significant funds have been spent on mental health services. But as Freedman noted in a submission to a Senate inquiry: “To people who have lost everything … sanity. is get out of a caravan. Practical support informed by the reality on the ground was lacking. âThis is a problem that you cannot invest money in,â he adds.
Cumulatively, Freedman’s experience over the past two years has resulted in what he calls “bureaucracy-induced trauma.” He recently saw a trailer for the new ABC series, Fires, which ends with a voiceover: “You’re not alone in this case.” The dissonance between drama and reality left him in shock. âWhat crap,â he said. âThere was no one here for us, no one here to help us. We were abandoned from day one.
‘No end in sight’
The story of the Freedmans is alarming. Still, this represents the tip of the iceberg – if anything, they’re ahead of the rebuilding curve. The Freedmans will be in their home by Christmas (even though it’s just Grandma’s apartment – they predict the full rebuild will take another four years). But many remain in their caravans or sheds. As recently as last week, Bega city council was forced to extend an exemption that allows bushfire survivors to live in temporary accommodation on site while they rebuild.
University of Melbourne professor Lisa Gibbs said authorities were well aware of this “long recovery tail”. After the Black Saturday bushfires of 2009, Gibbs and his colleagues conducted a longitudinal study of the impact on survivors. The research has highlighted the enduring nature of the trauma. Within four years, a quarter of study participants had been diagnosed with a mental health problem. A decade later, nearly one in five survivors were still struggling financially. In communities that had been hard hit, only a third felt their community had “almost” or “fully recovered”.
âOne of the recommendations from our research is that there really should be a five-year stimulus package,â Gibbs says. âThere will be an influx of services and support immediately. But there must be an appreciation that [the support] must be there for years and switch to traditional local services so that people are not left behind. “
On Cobargo’s main street, the volunteer-run rescue center sought to support bushfire survivors. It began operating on the first day of the disaster, initially set up on the exhibition grounds to assist the evacuees. It has since evolved to provide all the support the community needs. In the absence of government assistance, the local Union Maritime pays the rent for the picturesque headquarters of the chalet du center.
âThere is no end in sight,â says volunteer Danielle Murphy. âPeople cannot move forward – they continue to face obstacles, red tape, a lack of trades. A lot of people are in the same place they were last year.
Murphy says the pandemic means some of the government services currently being withdrawn have never been fully utilized. âThey didn’t extend any time,â she said. “They withdraw and the people are lost.”
Atkinson regularly visits the chalet to exchange information with Murphy and his colleagues. With a tenure stretching from the Victorian border to Batemans Bay, she spends hours on the road trying to help individuals and communities. Atkinson admits the volume of work is overwhelming, even two years later. “I feel like letting people down, I feel guilty when I take the time,” she said, her voice shaking with emotion. âWe have a long way to go. “