written by Deb Foskey, Coordinator and the views of no-one but her.
February Friday 13th 2015
It’s been a long time between blogs and a lot has happened since I last wrote. For instance, a fire. Perhaps the best way to write about this is by using some of my posts of the time.
First, a timeline of events – from my perspective
Thursday January 15 Fires began during storms which had a little rain with them
Friday Jan 16 more storms nearer Orbost
Jan 17, fire anxiety began
Jan 18 packed ready to go
Jan 22 began watering
Mon Jan 27, first community meeting at Bonang
Sat Feb 1 Second community meeting
Feb 1 - 2, Bulldozer made break/burnback line
Sun Feb 2 – 3 Graeme and Jen came to help by cutting and moving teatree
Mon Feb 3 – first evacuation, burnt leaves and smoke coming our way, 1mm rain
Tues Feb 4 Returned from Delegate, cool - mowed, moved teatree
Wed Feb 5 Cool, washed mowed and watered
Sat Feb 8th Evacuated to Delegate.
Red Sunday February 9 – Deb returned at 6 am, avoiding roadblock, and prepared house. Left at 12. Fires blew up, moved beyond containment lines. Fire swept across Cabanandra and West Bonang.
So glad I went back home on Sunday February 9th. It allowed me to enjoy my home and its environs one last time. That cup of coffee at the kitchen table was well-deserved and much appreciated. Arriving at 7.30, I had time at a pleasant dewy temperature to set up sprinklers on to the four walls of the house, move a bit of stuff (into the shed so it exists no more) and pile more things into the car. I knew the fire would hit that afternoon, and promised the DEPI guys I would be gone by midday.
I left extra feed for the chooks and told them what would happen, warned them they mightn’t be safe in their house but left it up to them to find somewhere better. I opened the gate to the river for the goats who had come home from the pine forests just two days before. No doubt they knew something.
And so I drove into Delegate with two dogs, a small cedar table and a bentwood chair, my warmest doona and some more paintings. Then, as we know, everything happened and I entered this strange phase of not having a house then having a house.
The fire from Tombong Range, Bronwyn Wright
Wed Feb 12 – public meeting Delegate Country Club
12 Feb 2014
Day 3 since the Cabanandra firestorm, and Day 27 since lightning earthed in Snowy River country. Householders and officials had time to set up our systems as the fire enlarged day by day. Computer models told the top guns at DEPI the fire would hit precisely where it did: Cabanandra and Bonang West. Mind you, a couple of locals were saying that too. As the day came, that predicted moment, DEPI/CFA staff pressured people to get out, including those who had previously decided to stay and defend (or just stay). Their own were removed to a safe distance. Thus, Cabanandra was empty of humans on Red Sunday when the fires' movement 'went to script' according to the Planning Officer at a briefing on Monday at Base Camp. By the time the fire has been through and the 'blacking out' is completed, my place will be a wasteland. All those birds, my local wallabies and wombats, the bush habitat which had recovered from the Department's efforts in 2013... It is hard to think about. My chooks are safe, apparently, in this strange world. Ironic isn't it?
Thurs Feb 13 – Carload of people skirted blockade and visited Cabanandra, observed structures which had been allowed to burn.
Facebook proved to be a crucial means of communication between those who stayed and those who left. It told me, for instance, that my house had survived. We who left appreciated that some had stayed to defend as best they could our properties.
To the people who stayed - thank you. Due to you, we know what's going on. We know which buildings are gone and which escaped. You've put out spot fires and called the alert and got assistance. Best of all, you've saved your homes. And some of you helped to save others', before and after. Our local heroes, we know who you are.
Sat Feb 15 Returned home; DEPI/CFA meeting at Bonang
Roads remained closed to locals and visitors for an inordinate amount of time – and the final All Clear was not issued until March 12 2014
Message reference number: 93889
Issued For: Goongerah, Bonang, Cabanandra, Dellicknora, Tubbut, Yalmy, Deddick Valley, Gelantipy, Butchers Ridge, W Tree, Murrindal, Orbost, Bete Bolong North, Wulgulmerang East, Jarrahmond, Bete Bolong, Buchan, Wulgulmerang
Fire Origin: 20 NW GOONGERAH
Incident Name: GOONGERAH-DEDDICK TRAIL
Issued: 12/03/14 11:20 AM
This Advice message is being issued by Department of Environment and Primary Industries for Goongerah, Bonang, Cabanandra, Dellicknora, Tubbut, Yalmy, Deddick Valley, Gelantipy, Butchers Ridge, W Tree, Murrindal, Orbost, Bete Bolong North, Wulgulmerang East, Jarrahmond, Bete Bolong, Buchan, Wulgulmerang.
Fire activity has subsided for the GOONGERAH - DEDDICK TRAIL Fire.
This bushfire is now contained.
Smoke may still be visible from nearby communities and roads.
The Bonang Road has restricted access.
The Yalmy Road and Pinnack Road remain closed.
There were many lessons from this fire. Those that sprang to mind immediately after the fire included:
Fires to be put out rather than allowed to burn.
Community emergency plans are needed.
Working bees – helping people to prepare their properties.
Local ‘safer’ places
Ways of allowing local people to return at own risk in order to save their places.
Regular meetings with DEPI/CFA instead of ad hoc.
After the fire our communities got organized. We wanted to do whatever we could to ensure that in future more effort would be put into putting fires out in their early stages and fairer ability would be granted for locals and family and friends to move in and out of the area when it was relatively safe.
We want a public inquiry
The communities affected by this year’s Deddick-Goongerah fires this year met on March 25th and chose a representative group to carry their demands for a public inquiry forward.
The group prepared a letter and supporting documents which they presented to Emergency Services Commissioner Craig Lapsley in Bonang on May 8th. The letter stated unequivocally that only an open, independent and public inquiry would answer the questions that people have been asking ever since the fires of January-February swept from the Snowy River National Park onto their farms, burning houses, sheds, fences and stock.
Group members said, “We were disappointed but not surprised to receive a response from Mr Lapsley offering us an internal inquiry conducted by himself, Euan Ferguson (both CFA) and Alan Goodman from DEPI.
“Unfortunately, Mr Lapsley had decided not to support a public Inquiry before he heard our concerns and read our letter.
“We thought that the CFA and DEPI would also be looking for answers as to why a number of small fires were allowed to burn unabated and become the largest fire that has hit this district for many decades. Thousands of hectares of forest were wiped out along with the plants and creatures that depended on them – an economic and ecological disaster.
“Surely the people responsible for putting out fires want to see what went wrong so they can do better next time.
“Right now we feel as though our concerns are being swept aside due to the smallness and remoteness of our communities. Nonetheless, we know for sure that if future fires are tackled the same way, the cry for a public Inquiry from other affected communities will become deafening.
“Better to look at the problem now so that trust can be rebuilt between the professional firefighters and the people who live in East Gippsland.
“Out of a public inquiry we hope to develop a protocol where good communication, respect for local knowledge and adequate resources are made available before the fire becomes a catastrophe.
“We have written to Mr Lapsley to reiterate our original request – we want an independent public inquiry.”
We didn’t get our public inquiry but we did our damnedest with the internal review. The article below was published in December-January’s Tattler and describes the processes following the fire.
The communities of Bonang-Cabanandra-Tubbut-Goongerah lived with fire on their doorstep for several weeks after lightning strikes ignited multiple fires in East Gippsland on January 15th 2014. Many of the fires didn’t get hold or were ‘absorbed’ by the bush, others were tackled while small and successfully extinguished, while others took more effort, most notably those near Club Terrace. The fires near Goongerah may have been impeded by the hundreds of DEPI officers and CFA members who came into our district, some camping at Goongerah and others at Bill Jeffries Park in Delegate. Certainly there was a continual presence of firefighters there and, although they worked business hours, local CFA members conducted night patrols. Wildfire and backburns left a blackened ring around Goongerah and there were a couple of terrifying days when residents were advised to evacuate, but private property at Goongerah remained largely intact. There was damage to three properties, including the loss of a house and a couple of huts at the northern end and a number of fences were breached by DEPI/CFA operations. This report concentrates on the fires which affected private property in the West Bonang-Cabanandra areas, which was the primary focus of the Reference Group.
The three fires ignited near the Deddick Trail and in Snowy River National Park were left to burn. They were considered too remote and difficult to get to although this was shown to be untrue by locals who easily drove the area afterwards on accessible tracks. In the context of scarce resources a decision was made not to tackle these fires despite the early offer of substantial help from the NSW fire fighting agencies which were ready and willing to assist. We understand that OH&S issues were a factor. The incident controller at the time of ignition of these fires - Ross Williamson, based in Orbost – had said at a meeting “I chose on the basis of firefighter safety not to send the Rappell Crew in”. This decision came back to bite DEPI when the fires joined up a couple of weeks later and, early in February, joined the fires north of Goongerah and burst into West Bonang-Cabanandra on February 9th.
As the report of Commissioner Lapsley put it:
On 9 February 2014, an extreme fire danger rating day was forecasted for the majority of Victoria. This was cited as the worst fire danger day since Black Saturday on 7 February 2009. Communities across Victoria were warned of the seriousness of this day and communities reacted appropriately. Although there was (sic) significant fire operations across Victoria no one lost their life and minimal lost (sic) of residential property resulted. …
Communities in Deddick, Tubbut, Bonang and Goongerah also prepared for the extreme fire danger day. This individual and community preparatory work proved to be very successful. Personal and family decisions were made to leave and move out of the area, whilst others decided to stay and work to defend their properties. These decisions were underpinned by good well-informed information prior to 9 February 2014. This was a key factor to the success of many.
Resources from CFA and DEPI were deployed to assist community preparedness however some resources were allocated away from the area to other fire operations. Those resources that remained in the area were staged in strategic locations.
The fire control strategy was to ‘stage’ fire vehicles in strategic locations. The ‘staged’ fire vehicles waited in the safety of the staging areas. However, this was viewed by the broader community as not being willing to assist community members protect private assets such as houses, sheds, and other critical agriculture assets.
Community members considered this was not as per the “plan” described by fire control at community meetings that occurred on previous days. This inaction was perceived by many community members as a breakdown in fire control strategy and support to a community under direct threat of fire.
This ‘lock down’ strategy appeared to remain in place from 9 February 2014 to 10 February 2014. During this period, significant damage occurred on private land and to private assets the fire was intense, but for the most, controllable and manageable. During this ‘lock down’ period the Community reported fire fighters were watching from afar, doing little, playing cricket and providing little or no support to a needing and desperate community.
To further complicate the negative experience of the community, the traffic management points that restricted access and egress were well established. This was a source of extensive frustration for many community members. With a long fire operations period, there were 24 hour road blocks that operated for weeks. This proved extremely problematic with restrictions placed on community members who wished to protect their properties, provide care and medicine to others, attend to livestock and/or function as a community by obtaining information and resources to manage their lives during an extended fire period.
Community meetings were conducted with a level of success prior to 9 February 2014, however after this date these quickly became very difficult forums with many community questions not being able to be adequately answered.
ECV report July 2014 p 6
A major reason that community meetings became conflicted was that a changing cast of DEPI and CFA officers conducted them and seemed poorly briefed about preceding discussions. We got the idea that attending meetings in our area was not an attractive gig. Local people felt that they were not listened to and their concerns were brushed over. We needed a community meeting with no officers present to allow frank and clear discussion between community members in order to forge a strategy for action. Tubbut Neighbourhood House contacted Dave Munday from East Gippsland Shire to facilitate the meeting as he had a good track record with the community, through his role in assisting us to implement the Mountain-Rivers community plan. Di Robinson, who was funded by the Shire to work with us in recovery, accompanied Dave to the meeting. There was a strong air of trust as we worked through the major issues coming out of the fires.
The meeting decided that matters relating to the fire needed independent investigation and that this would best be done through a public inquiry. The meeting decided to have their concerns be written up and presented to the Minister for Emergency Services (Kim Wells) putting the case for a judicial inquiry. Patrizia Neven and Jill Redwood were chosen to write the letter and several others were appointed to a Reference Group to work with them. The reference group was made up of Patrizia and Phillip Neven, Jill Redwood, David and Kelvin Ingram, Laurie Reed and Deb Foskey.
An online petition calling for a public inquiry was created and nearly 500 signatures endorsed it. As well, a number of people wrote letters or signed the form letter that called for a public inquiry. Local people were united on the need for an open, transparent, public inquiry – preferably a judicial inquiry or Royal Commission.
However, DEPI and the Victorian Government had other ideas. This was evident from the first meeting that Craig Lapsley attended on May 8th. The morning before he met with the reference group and community members at Bonang, he announced on ABC Gippsland radio that there would not be a public inquiry. This would seem not to be his decision to make as it was Minister Wells who had the authority to announce a public inquiry, appropriate in the light of experiences in the Grampians and Glenaladale – but it appears that the Commissioner led the government on this issue - unless he had been instructed by government to avert a public inquiry.
The irony is that the Commissioner is the person who allocated resources and put the Deddick Trail fires as a low priority. The fox was allowed to take charge of the hen house. We understand that the Hazelwood fires flaring up early in February was a difficult issue and that his attention was diverted. However the decision not to fight the Deddick Trail fires was made back in January. Volunteers from Delegate were prepared to come and help put the fires out but were advised by DEPI that legal action against the individuals would be taken. It later came to light upon investigation by David Ingram and his son that the initial fires were very localised – to one tree in one case - and not inaccessible as DEPI claimed; early attack could have extinguished them, preventing millions of dollars of taxpayer expenditure, untold damage to ecosystems and wildlife, national park infrastructure, houses, private property and peoples’ lives.
The key questions arising from the first community meeting and reiterated many times in the Reference Group’s submissions, discussions, meetings with politicians and emergency personnel and letters were:
Why weren’t the Deddick Trail fires directly attacked in the early stages?
Why weren’t there enough resources to adequately deal with these fires?
Why weren’t NSW Fire fighters used?
Why were local people restricted from going in and out of the area when there was no actual danger to these movements?
In the end, although we have not been given final figures, we know that between $70 million and possibly more than $140 million was spent on the fires. I hesitate to use the word ‘fighting’ as we saw little evidence of attempts to extinguish the fires. When the NSW crews were allowed into Victoria, their standing joke was that Victorian fire fighters don’t like to use water.
The Reference Group worked on a submission which we presented to Craig Lapsley after May 8th. While continuing to call for a public inquiry, we acted in good faith with the internal review process. It seemed that the constraints of an election year were setting the agenda of the review. The review team of Craig Lapsley, CFA Chief Officer Euan Ferguson and DEPI Chief Fire Officer Alan Goodwin - none of whom can be said to have an objective view - made a commitment to return in June after the presentation of a draft report for two days and receive submissions, both written and oral.
Eight submissions fed into the Commissioner’s draft preliminary report which was issued in May (after he met with us) including the Reference Group’s. The preliminary report was inadequate and submissions were written to attempt to correct mistakes, assumptions and oversights. The community’s concerns were rephrased as a number of bureaucratic questions and relegated to the headings below.
Incident management / incident strategy....27
Information to the community / communications....28
Community / private asset protection...29
Cross border inter-agency arrangements and deployment...29
Roadblocks – traffic management.......30
Planning and preparedness / shared responsibility.....31
Human, agriculture and farming impacts......33
A large proportion of the report was spent justifying this approach. For instance, ‘early attack’ became ‘incident management and strategy’ thus bypassing the essential question of how the strategy of early attack and control of fires has been discarded from fire-fighting strategy. At the first stages of the fire, decisions were made closer to home although Bendoc, the local office, was soon bypassed. The Control Centre was based in Orbost for much of the time and information to affected communities was intermittent and framed in bland messages and generalisations that could have been referring to any region or fire. This was exacerbated by the diverse forms of communication needed to contact everyone in the local area. Tubbut Neighbourhood House, which took on the role of producing flyers and distributing DEPI, Shire and CFA information was closed until late in January. Despite receiving an unstated number of new submissions, many critical of the draft report, the final report issued in July was little different to the earlier one. Furthermore, it was very similar to the Commissioner’s report on the Glenaladale fires. The internal review operated by its own rules, although these were not made available to the public. There were no terms of reference as is the normal method with inquiries. Also, submissions to public inquiries are normally publicly available, unless confidentiality is requested. They are published on web sites or available on request. This enables interested parties to find out the issues presented to the inquiry and has a positive benefit of enabling likeminded people to contact each other for mutual benefit. I have asked Craig Lapsley to send Tubbut Neighbourhood House copies of all submissions (except those labelled ‘confidential’ or whose writers do not wish to share them). He has refused that request.
The Reference Group met with local member Tim Bull and Kim Wells on October 22nd separately and attended a meeting with new officer in charge at Orbost, Craig Chapman and several DEPI officers to discuss plans for the coming fire season. We attended the first public meeting held at Bonang by the Inspector-General for Emergency Management Tony Pearce on September 12th where he went through his draft report on follow-up actions to the Lapsley report. On Tuesday October 7th, the Reference Group met with Pearce where he presented his final report.
The work of the Reference Group could be said to be at an end. Our results are mixed. We did not succeed in getting a public inquiry but we did our best to ensure that the internal review addressed questions of central concern to the community. The Minister for Emergency Services visited Bonang twice and appeared to understand our issues and the Inspector-General indicated that he would monitor the implementation of the Commissioner’s recommendations. Some of the less controversial of these have already been implemented – the supply of escort vehicles and personnel to allow residents to leave and re-enter the area when relatively safe and including ABC Southeast as an emergency broadcaster for our area. As for the rest, we won’t know whether there has been change until the next fire. The changes we have achieved will be rolled out to other fire-affected areas we believe. However, many of our larger more systemic concerns were not addressed and many questions remain.
The change of government will no doubt have an impact on the changes we have tried to make. New governments like to restructure – witness DSE becoming DEPI - and are usually reluctant to admit that they don’t already know everything. For this reason, the Reference Committee still has a job to do.
Report prepared by Deb on behalf of the reference Group
Magic on the Monaro - Tubbut visits Transfiguration Monastery
An ancient landscape The McLaughlin River near Merriangaah from a hand-built path at the Transfiguration Monastery
The Southern Monaro is hard country for humans yet it calls up a deep loyalty among those who live there. Keith Hancock loved it, it recalled his time in Tuscany as a young man (His book, Discovering Monaro, is an environmental history of the plateau and its peoples.)
“Hence his [Hanson’s] admiration for those he met in Monaro who were, as he put it, `deeply rooted in the land’.” (DISCOVERING HANCOCK The journey to Monaro by Tom Griffiths
Their houses huddle among the hills, crouching beneath pines and cypresses and reached by tree-lined avenues for the rich and well-connected landholders (though some of the great estates now grow pines instead of sheep and cattle) and the labourers’cottages sit stark on the bare landscape. Known as the treeless plains I don’t believe that the Aboriginal people who lived there prior to white settlement would have called it that. There are plenty of trees around Merriangaah where vegetation is preserved in a ‘nature park’
The Monaro’s trees are shapely, none the same as another, twisting and bending in response to the westerly winds blowing off Kosciusko.
I love the landscape but wouldn’t want to live there. Unless I could move into Transfiguration monastery.
The monastery is situated between Bombala and Dalgety and the monks have left the landscape largely intact. Where changed, the landscape is enhanced for human use as for instance by this bridge, built by a 70 year old who had never before built anything. He visited and stayed and stayed and built this bridge. Others contributed to the path snaking down to the river in the top photograph.
I heard several stories of people who came, stayed and left behind some art. The Korean artist who painted this, still on the easel in the icon room.
And there is the icon painter himself, absent on this day but his work everywhere. I didn’t take pictures in the chapel, which was graced by the Bombala version of the Sistine Chapel ceiling and, on the walls, representations of gold-leafed virgins and other biblical characters in the Russian Orthodox tradition. I captured this one in the icon room and understood that the Transfiguration monk was a master iconographer whose work is in great demand around the world.
I can’t work out whether this monastery is hiding from the world or shouting for visitors. It has only a brief entry on the web where I learn that the monks did not welcome the construction of the ‘intrusive’ wind farm next door. Now that it is there I hope they can learn to tolerate if not love it. (I hardly noticed it.)
On the web site there are maps and directions from Bega and Canberra and there is a guesthouse with the capacity to bed 60 people (though we did not see it; it is across the stone bridge and over a hill). People come and stay and …. it sounds like there is scope to do many things at this monastery.
We were there to learn about the ceramics that are made there. Master potter, Sergei Shatrov works there and he became known to us through Andrea Lane’s network. Lisa emailed him through the web site and he cordially welcomed us – four women – to visit the following Monday. While by horseback the monastery is not far from Delegate via Currawong its a long way by car.
So we were surprised to be following a clean, flash saloon car from the time we turned off the Dalgety Road. At each turn it became clearer we were heading to the same place, the only two cars on the road. Outside it was savagely cold, the frost was being blown in our faces. Snow was forecast, it was not a day for travelling.
We did arrive in the monastery’s parking lot at the same time. We introduced ourselves and found them to be random passersby, two generations of couples on their way from Narooma to the snow, who had followed the signs on a whim. Americans living in Narooma they told us. Ohio I think I heard later. We had a guided tour together with a softly bearded young monk who greeted us and showed us the chapel; here we became aware of the master iconographer. He took us to the kitchen and refectory and, after the ‘tourists’ had left, we were invited into the icon-painting/pigments storage room, an entirely pleasant place with books, windows looking out on beautiful places, pictures of many genres, comfortable chairs and floor rugs and a warm fire to drink our tea and eat the date loaf and boston bun we had brought. (The leftovers were welcomed by the brothers.) The tea was served in a ceramic teapot and thus began our conversation about pots, the place and the order and how they came together. We heard stories of many of the items in the room. Like the pigments used by Alexei for the icons, arranged in their colour groups. We were told that the red ones are particularly poisonous, perhaps they’d had visitors who took lids off jars.
The pigment shelves
While we drank our tea, snow was sighted drifting on the hillsides and catching on the trees. Time to jump in Lisa’s car and follow Sergei (hard ‘g’) over to the kilns and pottery shed. There we met another brother excited about the kiln’s contents; still cooling, a shelf collapse had produced interesting effects.
Below, snaps from the ceramics area. So many beautigul things I did not know where to stop.
Sergei at the top loading wood fired kiln
pots and pots
Clay kiln front & back
Inside the pottery making room
It was wonderfully warm by the kiln and the gnarly old Monaro was getting more beautiful by the minute. Nonetheless it was time to move on – except, here take this cup (or is it a spoutless jug?) –
Perfect for the morning coffee
And – on the way – well we’d be mad not to drop in on the woodworking monk who fashions bentwood chairs and prefers callitris to all timbers.
In the woodwork room
Everywhere we went, we met men having fun. Tucked away from the world they were free to pursue their vocation. We didn’t meet the gardeners or any of the other artisans tucked away in the hills.
By now the landscape was white and while some of us would have enjoyed being snowed in, off we went, exchanging email addresses and vowing to come back for a stint in the guesthouse to help with the next firing of the clay kiln. The greenhouses looked inviting. Perhaps we would meet some of the occupants of the sister convent or some of the knitting women who keep the monks in socks.
We drove back to Bombala through a sparkling magic landscape – the Monaro in its glory, a magical landscape, prosaically green and brown again by the time we reached Bombala.
Do the monks at Transfiguration appreciate visitors? Yes, when those visitors share their enthusiasm for beautiful things and bring the gift of their labour. Yes, when those visitors leave before 3 pm, allowing them time to don their hassocks to attend chapel.
From where I was standing, the life of the monastery looked like a boy’s own adventure. Yes, there are religious trappings and rituals, but they do not seem to dominate. The word ‘independent’ was used several times – I didn’t get a sense of an abbot breathing down their necks, although one visits from time to time. Transfiguration was the closest thing to a successful community I have seen. I couldn’t help wondering if the women have as much fun at the sister monastery, ‘over there’ (with a wave of the hand), whether I will ever find out and whether it even exists.
I do know that I will return.