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Making sense of the Black Summer

May 6, 2020 • 14m 33s

Thousands of Australians had their homes and lives destroyed by last summer’s bushfires, and now Covid-19 is shattering their plans to rebuild. Today, Rick Morton on what happens when a pandemic follows a natural disaster.

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Making sense of the Black Summer

217 • May 6, 2020

Making sense of the Black Summer

RUBY:

From Schwartz Media, I’m Ruby Jones, this is 7am.

As Australia deals with the fallout of Covid-19, thousands of people are still waiting to rebuild homes that were destroyed in last summer’s bushfires.

The government has announced a Royal Commission into the Black Summer but it’s been overshadowed by the current crisis.

Today, senior reporter at The Saturday Paper Rick Morton on what happens when a natural disaster crashes into a pandemic.

**

RUBY:

Rick, one of the places that was hardest hit by the bushfires was around the Northern Rivers in New South Wales. You have recently been there. How are people going five months on?

RICK:

It's ah, god, it's been really tough for them. I mean, it's almost been half a year. And, you know, I was speaking to one woman in particular who lost her mother's home.

And most of the home that they were building next door, the Blaxlands Creek, not far from Grafton. And her name was Elisabeth Moore. And she's you know, she was telling me about that night.

Archival tape -- Elizabeth Moore:

The noise was horrific. The big gum trees that you can see out there, they'd be over 100 feet high. The flames were third again higher than them.

RICK:

… and the trauma of it. they had the fire kind of moved down this valley and destroyed random homes all the way down.

Archival tape -- Elizabeth Moore:

You could feel the heat, the roar, the noise, the crashing. And I remember just sort of housing one ember. It was coming down and thinking, you've lost it.. And I yell, we're out of here. We had the car packed pointing out we had the cat in the car and a few things that we'd got together and would display it. I didn't even look around.

RICK:

And, you know, she's flabbergasted still that lives weren't lost. Even though scores of homes were

Archival tape -- Elizabeth Moore:

I don't understand how no one died. This community is very blessed that we didn't.

RICK:

And they are still picking up the pieces almost exactly five months to the day since the fire hit the place in Blaxland’s Creek. I've only just managed to clear the property, say, you know, they've had 11 truckloads taken to the dump.

Archival tape -- Elizabeth Moore:

We lost count metal and ash and broken glass, all the rubbish that is left after a fire. And it is really horrible, smelly, yucky, especially the smell...

RICK:

And it's not you know, it's not just Grafton or the Northern Rivers. I mean, this is happening and has happened all over the country. We had really bad fires in Queensland, New South Wales, Victoria, South Australia. And at one point or another, we had fires burning in every state and territory at the same time.

RUBY:

So.. it's been a long time since some of these homes were destroyed… yet many people are still waiting to rebuild... Is this an unexpected delay? Why is it taking so long.

RICK:

Yeah. I mean, so, you know, in early January, Scott Morrison actually announced a two billion dollar national bushfire recovery fund. And he used those words. And that was going to be overseen by the former Australian Federal Police Commissioner, Andrew Colvin, who now is the coordinator of the National Bushfire Recovery Agency.

But there was never actually any specific fund that the money wasn't put in kind of a quarantined place in the budget. So it's more of a theoretical pot of money that they have to get from elsewhere in government. And that actually came up at Senate Estimates in early March.

Archival tape -- Senates Estimates:

So the PM’s announcement on the 6th of January when he was under a lot of pressure was that he established a national emergency bushfire fund.

RICK:

Then one of the public servants there, responded to Labor MP Murray. What you asked, you know, where is this money?

Archival tape -- Senates Estimates:

This is the agency that is allegedly administering a 2 billion dollar fund and I just want to see where it is.

RICK:

And they said, Senator, the $2 billion fund is a notional fund.

Archival tape -- Murray:

There is no fund, is there? It’s not anywhere in the budget statements…

Archival tape -- unknown:

We'll take it on notice, senator.

Archival tape -- Murray:

Well you know yes or no if there’s actually a National Bushfire recovery fund.

RICK:

And that Senator Penny Wong asked, well, where's the direct appropriation for this money? And they said there is none.

Archival tape -- Penny Wong:

So has it been identified in the CR or not, the contingency reserve?

Archival tape -- unknown:

Uh, that question would be better directed at the department of finance.

Archival tape -- Penny Wong:

Well, you should know what kind of funding allocation you have...

RICK:

So, you know, that doesn't mean the money's not being spent, but it does make it harder to track. But really, there's no impetus for them to do this by a certain timeline. And with the attention now gone and focused on the pandemic, people are just left to languish.

RUBY:

So there are questions about how this fund is being managed... and where the money is even being held. And that has pushed up against the Covid-19 pandemic and everything associated with the lockdown. What is the impact of that for people who have lost their homes?

RICK:

It's such a whiplash effect to have a bushfire and then go into it into a kind of a pandemic.

We've supplanted one existential crisis with another and necessarily we had to really kind of think hard and long about what we did during this pandemic. But that kind of felt like a lot of the bushfire survivors that they were being left behind.

And, you know, the Northern Rivers fires were in early November. So we're talking a long time ago and there are still people who are living in tents or in caravans or they're homeless.

You know, there's a lot of people up in this area in particular who were living off the grid. I mean, they didn't, they didn't have a huge amount of access to the community. They certainly didn't trust government.

And, you know, I've heard from Elizabeth Moore, who was saying that, you know, there's been a few people up here that refused financial support because the hoops they had to jump through, the administrative hurdles were so steep that they were just like, well, the bastards want to know too much. So I'm not doing it.

Archival tape -- Elizabeth Moore:

The mental effect on them was just horrific.

RICK:

And it's, you know, it's a complex psychological kind of interaction here.

Archival tape -- Elizabeth Moore:

Perhaps because it is a rural area where some maybe we have a higher incidence of people that are sort of going into the Bush, just want to live out off the grid perhaps.

RICK:

And it's not just as simple as saying, here's some money, go get your life back in order, cause

Archival tape -- Elizabeth Moore:

Other things like family issues where people aren't getting on. All of a sudden there's other things in there, like maybe insurances or living situations. What are we going to do now.

RICK:

The flow-on consequences of all of that trauma make people behave in ways that might not seem obvious to you and I, having not been through.

And I have not been through that, but to them seem incredibly appropriate because, you know, it's some semblance of control back over their lives that, you know, when everything was swept away.

RUBY:

We'll be back in a moment.

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RUBY:

Rick, the government has announced a Royal Commission into the Black Summer, can you remind me of the scale of the bushfires that we’ve just come through?

RICK:

My God. I mean, it was huge. I mean, we call it the summer bushfire, as we call it Black Summer, but it's a bit of a misnomer because in truth, you know, the season began in July last year. It arrived with force in Queensland by September when rainforest started burning. And if you know, the fires were only contained or extinguished in March and it was officially declared over in April. So really, we had a black winter, spring, summer and autumn.

So, you know, 18 million hectares were completely scorched. More than 3500 homes were lost and another five thousand eight hundred fifty two outbuildings were destroyed. Thirty four people died and there were 417 more, quote unquote, excess deaths as a result of the smoke that blanketed so much of the country for so long.

So, I mean, those are huge numbers. And it was that smoke that catapulted this disaster into the national psyche. And we felt like we might have had a moment where we could have dealt with the underlying cause here, which was climate change, but then we lost it. We lost the focus we had because of the pandemic.

RUBY:

And that is especially interesting seeing as climate change is not something that the Royal Commission is examining.

RICK:

Not explicitly. You know, the terms of reference don't actually give the royal commission specific powers to inquire into climate change or the things we need to do as a government and as a people to reduce emissions. But nevertheless, you know, some of the submissions to the royal commission have already and will bring up climate change. And, you know, in the inquiries we're seeing both at the royal commission and at the parliamentary inquiry level. The climate scientist, Dr Sophie Lewis, she's a lead author on the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s sixth assessment report.

And she wrote in her submission: New records were set for high daily forest fire danger index in all states and territories throughout spring. Now, Forest Fire Danger Index is, you know, when you hear that a bushfire is catastrophic. That's because of that index. So it's a really crucial measurement tool. And she goes on to say, 95 per cent of Australia had forest fire danger index values in spring in the highest 10 per cent of values recorded ever. So, you know, people will supply this information to these inquiries.

It's just that the royal commission doesn't quite have the teeth to report back and make recommendations to the government about what it needs to do from an emissions reduction point of view, which is probably what needs to happen at this point.

RUBY:

Rick, whether or not the commission addresses climate change directly. It's clearly something that's going to continue to threaten our natural environment and our way of life. So is there any acknowledgement of that by other parties beyond the scientists who are putting their submissions forward?

RICK:

Yeah, and I think crucially by other parties, I mean, I would humbly suggest that you pay attention to the insurance companies in Australia because they're worried. What are they saying? Let's take Suncorp submission to the royal commission.

They're saying that they are concerned that Australian communities are becoming this I'm quoting from this submission, becoming more vulnerable due to physical impacts of a changing climate. It's pretty blunt.

There's about 100,000 homes that are currently uninsurable because of the changing climate and we haven't spent money on mitigation. So these are not theoretical assumptions. This is a real concern. And it matters to real people out there in the suburbs, in regional towns who will not be able to afford to insure their own property. If we don't act now.

RUBY:

When should we expect to have answers and action on this - will it be before the start of the next bushfire season, which is not so far away now?

RICK:

It's really close, actually, given what we now know. The final report from the royal commission is due by the end of August. The whole point of this for the federal government's point of view was to bring the recommendations out before the next bushfire season began, which theoretically would be in August, to give agencies, governments, fire crews, time to respond or or make adaptations to the way things have been done.

But, you know, we're still not finished dealing with the one that we just had. And usually you'll find that in the downtime between seasons, fire crews will retrain for different scenarios or things that they have noticed in the previous season. And we're not going to really have that time.

We just don't know when the next one will start and what needs to change. And certainly, you know, there's a lot of anger out there about across the secretary for people. And it seemed poised to fundamentally change our nation's relationship to climate change. And then that momentum sort of just evaporated.

You know, the horror was supplanted by the other existential threat Covid-19. And, you know, by the time the worst of this viral threat passes, the next bushfire season will already be upon us.

And not only will we be dealing with that then, but we'll be dealing with that during an even more depressed economy where people's lives have suffered and where we may not have all the answers that we need.

RUBY:

Rick, thanks for your time today.

RICK:

Thanks Ruby, appreciate it.

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RUBY:

Also in the news...

The Prime Minister Scott Morrison has declared that combating unemployment caused by the lockdown is now his government’s priority.

Speaking after a meeting of the national cabinet yesterday, he said Australia needs to get 1 million people back to work.

Morrison said that once some restrictions are lifted, a rise in cases of Covid-19 will be inevitable… But added "what matters is how you deal with it, and how you respond to it"

**

While each state and territory will continue to make its own decision about the easing of restrictions, the National Cabinet will devise a framework when it meets on Friday.

Scott Morrison also said a "safe-travel zone" with New Zealand is "still some time away", but flagged it could happen around the same time as interstate travel.

**

The Chief Medical Officer Brendan Murphy yesterday announced that 665,000 Covid-19 tests have been carried out in Australia.

Murphy added that the country had secured enough supplies to significantly expand its testing regime.

Murphy also reiterated the federal government’s position that it is safe to re-open schools, saying “we have no real evidence that schools are a driver of transmission”.

**

I’m Ruby Jones, this is 7am. See ya tomorrow.

Thousands of Australians had their homes and lives destroyed by last summer’s bushfires, and now the pandemic is shattering their plans to rebuild. As the royal commission examining our Black Summer begins, experts say the climate crisis will leave even more people vulnerable. Today, Rick Morton on what happens when a pandemic follows a natural disaster.

Guest: Senior reporter for The Saturday Paper Rick Morton.

Background reading:

Black Summer bushfire inquiries begin in The Saturday Paper
The Saturday Paper
The Monthly

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7am is a daily show from The Monthly and The Saturday Paper. It’s produced by Ruby Schwartz, Atticus Bastow, and Michelle Macklem. Elle Marsh is our features and field producer, in a position supported by the Judith Neilson Institute for Journalism and Ideas. Brian Campeau mixes the show. Our editor is Osman Faruqi. Erik Jensen is our editor-in-chief. Our theme music is by Ned Beckley and Josh Hogan of Envelope Audio.

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217: Making sense of the Black Summer