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Local council staff committed to community

Bega

A story from Bega in NSW, reflecting life in June 2020.

There was growing fear and anxiety for the residents of the Bega Valley on the New South Wales far south coast leading into the summer of 2019-20.

“Many months of drought had drawn every drop of moisture from our landscape – dams and paddocks were dry, random patches of bushland had started to turn brown. People feared what the long, hot days of summer would do to our scattered communities,” said Bega Valley Shire Local Council General Manager, Leanne Barnes.

Fresh in everyone’s mind was the experience of those who had lived through the Tathra and Yankees Gap bushfires just 18 months before, when around 75 homes were lost. 

“Seeing the early horror of bushfire in other parts of New South Wales was a reality we feared would soon be ours,” said Ms Barnes. “On the last day of 2019, the fire came.”

The direct impacts of the fires have been immense. Four lives were lost, over six hundred homes damaged or destroyed, over 1000 sheds and outbuildings lost. In total, around 60 per cent of the Shire was burnt – 401,000 hectares or around 4,000 square kilometres. 

Almost every sector of the local economy has been affected in one way or another. Tourism, retail, agriculture, aquaculture and forestry sectors have been particularly hard hit.

Ms Barnes says the adaptability and resilience of Council staff to step up into response and recovery roles, outside of their usual tasks, points to their commitment to the community, and this has been key to recovery efforts.

She said the Office of Emergency Management (now Resilience NSW) was also extremely important, with teleconferencing beginning on 1 January 2020, the day after the fire hit.

“We also had excellent well-established relationships with key agencies and staff – Office of Emergency Management, Public Works, NSW Planning, RFS, SES, Local Land Services, Essential Energy, NSW Water, NSW Health, NSW Police, NSW Ambulance and others,” she said.

Ms Barnes hopes that from this experience comes a better understanding and respect for the role, capability, and knowledge of local government by state and Australian government agencies. 

“Local government was here before and during the emergency and will be long after, we have a solid grounding for local community led recovery that needs to be resourced year-round before, during and after emergency,” Ms Barnes said.
And her advice going forward? “Develop and build local relationships and staff. The connections, knowledge and passions these people bring are critical when organisations and communities are stretched beyond capacity.”