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Community recovery through unity

Lobethal

A story from Lobethal in South Australia, reflecting life in September 2020.

The town of Lobethal, in the Adelaide Hills, was deeply affected by the catastrophic bushfire that consumed 84 homes, countless sheds, businesses and infrastructure during the Black Summer of 2019-20.

Adam Weinert returned to his home town four years ago, after 22 years in the army. He shared the story of his community’s set back through the fires, but also resilience and growth.

“My family has been here since 1842, when they settled from what is now eastern Germany,” said Adam.

“I’m really looking forward to the future the town holds for me and my family beyond its recovery from this disaster.”

Adam is the third generation of his family to run their local fuel distribution business. He returned to Lobethal wanting to live a quiet life with his young family.

“That all changed on 20 December last year,” Adam recounts. “The community was traumatised, and there was shock, panic and chaos in the immediate aftermath of the fires.”

The day before the fire front reached Lobethal, a catastrophic fire warning had been declared for the coming day, due to high winds, hot temperatures, and a high fuel load around the town.

The situation quickly turned into everyone’s worst fear.

Locals saw a plume of smoke behind Lobethal Bushland Park. Within about 45 minutes, the severe winds had driven the fire in the direction of the town.

“A lot of us hoped that it might miss the town, but that all changed in minutes, when the wind changed and pushed the fire immediately into the town,” Adam described.

“A westerly wind pushed the flank of the fire towards the town as a separate fire front.”

Aerial firebombers were able to suppress the fire to the west of the town, but they could not keep it from encircling the town, which became the town’s primary problem over the coming days.

It took about 10 hours for the fire front to move through so that it was no longer a threat to Lobethal. It left the town completely cut off from communications, electricity and outside access. Lobethal became an island surrounded in black for about 72 hours after the fire had swept through the area.

Adam, drawing from his military experience, was able to step up and lead the relief efforts. This proved critical to getting his community through those first days.

“Once the immediate fire front had passed, we quickly mobilised into what I’m proud to say was probably one of the best rudimentary relief efforts imaginable for a town of 2000 people,” said Adam.

Adam called a town meeting, through word of mouth, the day following the fire front. About 350 people met on the town oval to determine what they knew about the situation and what they needed to do.

“I noticed the fear in people’s eyes about being isolated, and that fear needed to be abated,” Adam said. “We couldn’t rely on outside help, because no one could get in.”

Adam called for volunteers. Immediately about 40 people came forward, setting up a relief centre within three hours. They began triaging the most urgent needs.

Over the next few days, the group of volunteers had grown to around 260. They worked together for about three weeks to look after the town, until the state government Recovery Centre set up in Lobethal.

The local volunteers organised things like checking on vulnerable people, emergency accommodation, caring for livestock and managing a town with services cut and no outside help available.

“By setting up a relief centre, and enabling the town to help themselves, people who were in trauma and confused were empowered by doing something useful,” Adam related.

Locals gave whatever they could: clothing, food, accommodation, generators, water, and earth moving equipment or just time to help others.

“It united us as a village, so that the township became stronger through relief and recovery,” Adam said.

Adam describes community spirit and empowerment as critical for Lobethal to get past the disaster and through the recovery process. Yet he also believes that the connection to government, at all three levels – local council, state and federal – is important.

“We were so fortunate in this community to have leaders and staff of each of those levels of government who immediately jumped on the task of getting amongst the community and finding out what was needed,” he said.

“That gave people the confidence that they weren’t alone. It’s not just about financial support, it’s about having politicians and leaders hear their concerns and enact solutions that brings comfort, relief and a path to recovery for the community.”

Government-appointed Recovery Coordinators in Lobethal, and other fire-affected communities, are now assisting people to help themselves in recovery.

The community holds Adam is high regard. Adam still has Lobethal’s recovery at the front of his mind and actions every day.

“In terms of my own recovery, I’m still a long way off,” Adam shared. “My home, which I had looked forward to living out my days in, is now gone.”

“The reality of recovery is quite harsh. It takes time to process everything. There are many decisions to be made and then you have to learn what you can and can’t do.”

Adam said that one of the best decisions he made through recovery is not to rush it.

“Winter 2021 is our timeframe for deciding whether or not to rebuild our home, and that has lifted the weight of ‘decision fatigue’ from our shoulders.”

The unity and resilience his community has gained has given Adam hope. He feels it has helped them deal with the challenges resulting from COVID-19.

“The key message I can offer other communities is that ‘a community that recovers together, recovers stronger and quicker’,” he said. “People who have a shared sense of loss can turn that around and empower themselves, pulling in support, relying on local leaders, and set themselves up for recovery from disaster, as well as a permanent sense of success as a great community to be part of.”

The community of Lobethal came together on 20 December 2020 to commemorate what happened on that day in 2019.