Taking part in a prescribed burn was a key part of the Hotspots Fire Project workshop. Photo credit: Kate McShea

What Does Community-led Recovery Look Like? A Case Study from the Carwoola 2017 Bush Fire

By: Zoe D'Arcy, New South Wales State Emergency Service (Australia)

Topic: Learning networks Preparedness Resilience Wildfire recovery

Type: Success Story / Lessons Learned

One sunny day in February 2017, I got to see first-hand what impact a disaster could have on people when my own small community of Carwoola in New South Wales experienced a bushfire. But I also got to see how a well-designed program about fire in the Australian landscape – Hotspots Fire Project (Hotspots) – could help a community with their recovery process. Hotspots participants learnt together about how fire can be used to protect their assets as well as to promote biodiversity. They learnt how they could take real steps to be better prepared for the next bushfire. Perhaps even more powerfully, participating in Hotspots made people feel more connected to each other and to the local landscape.

I was mountain biking with my husband up to the summit of Kosciuszko, Australia’s highest mountain (2,228 metres/7,310 feet above sea level). At the top, we found we had perfect phone reception. As we sat eating sandwiches and posting pictures of our ride on social media, we started to be inundated with calls and messages from friends, wanting to know if we were OK. We learnt, to our horror, that there was a major fire happening near our home in Carwoola, more than 220 km from our current location. Feeling powerless and very far away from home, we immediately rang our children and my parents to make sure they weren’t in any danger. To our relief, they were fine. And our own houses were not under direct threat from the fire.

Other families we knew were not so lucky. No human lives were lost, but within a couple of hot, windy and panicked hours, eleven homes had been burnt to the ground. Community members, even those not directly in the path of the fire, were left deeply shocked, frightened and even angered by their experience. Almost immediately, they started to look for various means to meet their recovery needs.

Recovery from the short-term disaster

As a researcher, I’m personally really interested in the idea of ‘community-led’, or ‘participatory’ recovery from disasters. Community-led recovery is currently agreed to be best practice by academics, policy areas and practitioners in Australia. From my own perspective, it’s only good sense that the people affected by disaster are the best placed to identify what they need to recover.

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Hotspots ecologist Kevin shows a family how to calculate the current local Forest Fire Danger rating using the NSW Rural Fire Service Pocketbook, a phone app developed by the NSW Rural Fire Service. Photo credit: Kate McShea

At the same time, I recognise that despite this seeming accord, on-the-ground implementation of post-disaster community-led recovery continues to be a challenge. Not least problematic is that the very word ‘community’ suggests a homogeneity of identities and views that probably did not exist pre-disaster – and which have the potential to become even more fragmented after the experience of a disaster.

So what have been the ties that have bound us in our recovery needs? In the case of many Carwoola residents, their recovery needs haven’t necessarily been in dealing with property, pet and livestock loss. Instead, their immediate needs have been to address the feelings of powerlessness they felt during the fire. Thus, our local fire brigade became overwhelmed by the numbers of people wanting to revisit their previous bushfire mitigation and preparation plans.

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Carwoola residents touring the fireground – seeing both the impact of the bushfire and the process of regeneration. Credit: Kate McShea

The other key value that many residents share is a love of being part of the Carwoola landscape – of having a home outside the city.

These two shared concerns made Hotspots Fire Project, which is run jointly by the New South Wales Rural Fire Service and the Nature Conservation Council of New South Wales, extremely relevant to us. The local fire brigade, thinking that Hotspots workshop would at least be an efficient way to give the same information out to a lot of people, invited the team to come and work with us.

Recovery from the long-term disaster

Carwoola is not so much a town as a collection of around five hundred small rural properties between 2 and 20 hectares in size. It’s located close to the city of Canberra, where many of Carwoola’s residents work and go to school. For around 100 years until about four decades ago, the area was used to farm sheep and cattle. The landscape bears the scars of this farming – with a degraded ecology.

Before European farmers moved into the area in the 19th century, the Carwoola landscape was nearly entirely made up of grassy woodlands. Its hills were a fertile landscape of eucalypts such as snow gums, yellow box, and apple box interspersed with an understory of shrubs, grasses and herbs. These woodlands merged into grasslands around the lower areas where the Molonglo river winds its way. Fire was an integral part of this landscape, and was used by its original inhabitants, the Ngunnawal, Ngambri, Ngarigu and the Walgalu peoples, to manage it for their needs.

Carwoola’s remnant landscape now only exists in tiny pockets. When the European farmers started managing the landscape, they cleared most of trees that were on the hillsides to extend the lower grasslands for their stock. Over time, their sheep and cattle devoured many of the yams, lilies and other flowers that grew in the grasslands, and their hard hooves compressed the delicate soils. Introduced weeds flourished. As the diversity of the local flora suffered, the local animal species declined. Koalas, for instance, which were once plentiful in the area, have been reduced to only a handful of rarely-sighted individual animals. Many more animals, such as quolls and bettongs, have disappeared and have been replaced by foxes and rabbits.

Nevertheless, the community of Carwoola love their land. Many residents are deeply passionate about helping their properties start to recover from the long-term damage of farming activity. Despite their recent experience of bushfire, they were interested in learning more about the role that fire can play in promoting biodiversity. They were very interested in being part of Hotspots.

Participating in the Hotspots Fire Projects program

Hotspots Fire Project has been running for many years in New South Wales, but this was the first time it had been run with a fire-affected community. I was fortunate enough to attend, and then also to run an evaluation of how well it had worked for the community a few months later.

The program was designed to give people a lot of information about fire, their local ecology, and how the two work together. They learnt about local plant species and how some of them are reliant on fire to germinate seeds. They learnt about how the grassy woodlands they think of as ‘natural’ are in fact the result of human management using fire as a tool. They were encouraged to start mapping how they could use fire as a land management tool on their own land.

More importantly, they learnt about their own bushfire. A tour of the fire ground showed people where it started and how it moved across–and was shaped by–features of the landscape. Even though the workshop was held seven months after the fire, Carwoola residents were able to look at the burnt eucalypts and see the strong westerly wind that fanned the bushfire in the ‘foliage freeze’ – the leaves burnt into one position by the bushfire. Near the site of a destroyed house, they could see small signs of post-fire regeneration – green shoots on the branches of older trees, and grasses appearing from the ground.

Feedback from participants was that they found the workshop to be really valuable, and most people had taken their learnings and put them into practice. This practice tended to be in the form of making their house more fire safe rather than by putting fire to the ground. The program didn’t appeal to everyone in the community. For example, people who had homes in the burnt fireground seemed to have no interest in attending. This was interesting, as understandably, when the Hotspots team had designed the program they had assumed that they would be helping everyone in the community.

Hotspots Fire Project staff have now used their learnings from the Carwoola community to run similar programs to facilitate the recovery of other bushfire-affected communities.

Zoe D’Arcy is a Planning and Research Officer with the New South Wales State Emergency Service in Australia. She is also at the beginning her PhD journey. Her research topic is “The ‘fire-adapted community’: Reframing the wicked problem of bushfires in the Australian landscape.”

 

 

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4 thoughts on “What Does Community-led Recovery Look Like? A Case Study from the Carwoola 2017 Bush Fire”

  1. Tony Jarrett says:

    Ho Zoe, well done. This is a really good account of community-led recovery. I think it is always valuable to hear the perspectives and experiences of an ‘insider’ such as you – community member and researcher.

    Aa subsequent story of the Hotspots Program may be very useful to our international colleagues in the FAC Learning Network.

  2. In your article I found a certain amount of preference for a landscape more in its pre-1778 state than an area that had been farmed. “The landscape bears the scars of this farming – with a degraded ecology.” If we hadn’t started farming we would not have produced wheat, nor cattle or sheep. We would not be producing wool.
    From the early days of European settlement we have developed many parts of the country in order to provide food, building materials, transport routes, etc.
    We still have many areas that have bush not far away and the difficulty is ensuring that people and their homes are not put at undue risk from bushfires. Near settlements we need an altered ecology where fuel levels are kept low and plants with volatile oils – eucalypts and related plants – are kept at a safe distance. The “natural” ecology can start further out from towns and settlements to ensure that there are buffers to protect people and their property.
    I find it interesting that “people who had homes in the burnt fireground” seemed not be interested in attending. I’ve struck this phenomenon before in the Waroona Fires in WA in 2016. It would be highly relevant to try to tease out why these people did not want to attend. Too close to the bone, perhaps?
    It is no small thing to have one’s house burnt down or to find that your house in a street still stands and all your former neighbours have had their houses burnt down.
    Tread softly because bushfires taking out a town or part of it has a huge negative effect on people’s lives and way of living. The loss of pets is not always thought about but that can be heart rending, let alone if a loved one were killed.
    Near towns and on small landholdings fire is not necessarily the most effective tool for reducing fuel loads, because too much smoke can affect air quality and become a hazard in its own right both to health and property safety.
    As I said earlier a model that I prefer and developed by a former Greens member of the WA Upper House is to have the concept of a local or home ecology where humans and their safety and that of their possessions make up a key component of the ecology of the area adjoining houses. The natural ecology needs to start further away, at least 100m from any structure or development. Else we will keep having people and their property at undue and unacceptable risk from bushfires.

  3. Zoe D'Arcy says:

    Thanks Tony. Yes, it would be great to see a story from the Hotspots team – they’ve got a great depth of knowledge and experience to share!

  4. Zoe D'Arcy says:

    Thanks for your thought-provoking comments, Peta. You’ve provided some interesting points to respond to.
    I guess the point I was trying to make about Carwoola is that sheep and cattle farming practices have not only changed the landscape, in this area those practices have impacted quite dramatically on environmental diversity. The fact that the land is no longer used for farming, but has been subdivided for peri-urban dwellers, hints at this. Farmers don’t sell off their best land!
    Current local residents have small blocks. They have not bought them as fully producing farms – at most they run the odd horse, sheep, cow or alpaca. But as well as this, local residents are really interested in building up their local environmental diversity. Our local Landcare group, for instance, is very active – and many people are also keen members of groups such as Friends of Grasslands. There are many reasons for this; they want to tackle invasive weeds; to build habitats to shelter birds and other native wildlife; to increase the quality of the soil; to stop erosion; and yes, there probably are some people who envisage their land in a pre-1778 state.
    So yes, given their interest, I would also like to tease out why the residents from the fireground didn’t attend the Hotspots program. After the fire their land, which was mostly located along a rocky escarpment, was particularly fragile and vulnerable (and still is). Your observation about the Waroona community after their fires is interesting – and I’ve had similar comments from other people who run community programs about fire. If a similar program were to be run for those residents now that more time has passed, would there be better uptake? This may be something that the Hotspots team could provide further information on now that they have run this program with a few fire-affected communities.
    I think we’re in full agreement that any land management has to be done carefully to also protect assets. The Hotspots Fire Project is designed to balance those two needs. I think that having two organisations run it – the NSW Rural Fire Service and the Nature Conservation Council of NSW – has been quite an inspired partnership in this regard.

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