The fires started around Mt Beauty in December 2019, just before New Year’s Eve.
The town, nestled at the foot of Mt Bogong in north-east Victoria, is surrounded by national parks and forests. Fires were burning in the north, east and south, sending thick smoke across the entire region.
“Evacuation options were limited," expains Jessica Davison, from our Victorian Bushfire Recovery Team. "Leaving late can be quite dangerous in this area."
Every time the wind picked up, changed direction or moved closer to settlements, people got scared.
“Locals say the Mt Beauty township has never been directly threatened by bushfire, so you had half the population thinking that everything was going to be fine, while the other half were in a real panic," Jessica said. "There was no agreement in the community about the dangers, or whether evacuations were even necessary.”
The community was frightened, tired, and worn down by the threat of the fires. Residents didn’t feel prepared for what they were facing.
“People would come into the Mt Beauty Neighbourhood Centre during the fires and say, ‘We don’t know what to do. We don’t have a fire plan, we don’t know whether to evacuate or where to go if we do evacuate. What about my neighbour who has a disability, or my friend that is isolated’”, Jessica said.
“They also found it difficult to communicate with their children about what was happening. A lot of kids were asking, ‘When can we come back?’, or, "Will our house be ok?’ It’s really difficult to answer those questions in these situations.”
Fourteen months have passed since heavy rains put out the last of the fires near Mt Beauty. Communities in north-east Victoria spent the better part of past year assessing the damage and cleaning up after the emergency. Red Cross bushfire recovery teams were on the ground, gathering information on community needs and supporting residents’ rebuilding and recovery efforts.
“We identified quite a few areas of focus. This included helping youth and people living in isolation and supporting service providers,” Jessica said. “In Mt Beauty, we found preparedness was something that needed to be addressed at a community level, given the anxiety triggered by the bushfires.”
The Mt Beauty Neighbourhood Centre Board set up the Keep Calm Committee, led by one of the local residents, Kitty Vigo, a former journalist with a segment on the local radio station.
“Kitty is one of the best prepared people I have ever come across,” Jessica said. “So she really wanted to help people.”
Kitty approached Jessica for an interview to discuss the Red Cross RediPlan and CFA Fire Ready programs. Following the interview, Jessica and Kitty got in touch with the Red Cross State and National Recovery Teams to discuss the RediCommunities program, and how they could organise a community workshop in Mt Beauty.
“The RediCommunities program can help individuals, volunteers and community groups strengthen the resilience of their communities in response to emergencies,” Jessica said. “With broader focus at a community level, it can have a wide reach, allowing for greater community and emergency services input. RediCommunities complements the existing Red Cross RediPlan and CFA Fire Ready programs which are more relevant at an individual or household level.”
“And since each community is best placed to know what works for them, Kitty worked hard to shape and tailor the workshop agenda to meet local needs.”
A two-day RediCommunities workshop was held in Mt Beauty in February 2021.
“Part of the workshop involved a panel from local emergency management personnel – police, fire brigade, ambulance, local power station, state emergency services, local government and Red Cross – who explained their role during emergencies, so the community would know what they could expect,” Jessica said.
“This is particularly relevant in emergencies of this magnitude – you can’t just expect the fire brigade or the police to come and help you at your house. What happens if there is no Neighbourhood Safer Place to go to, or you can’t reach it because the roads are blocked? What if there is a water shortage or power outage? You really have to be responsible for your own and your family’s safety, plan in advance and be ready to help yourself. That’s something that hit home for a lot of people.”
Residents also had the opportunity to exchange information, ask questions, map risks and identify important community assets that could be leveraged in the event of emergencies.
With leadership from Kitty and the Keep Calm Committee, the community developed a list of priorities and set up a Resilience Group to drive the recommendations, which included:
“Red Cross will continue to support the community’s recovery, check in regularly, and help if things get stalled,” Jessica said.
“But the process in Mt Beauty is working because it truly is community-led. Residents now understand that they need to be responsible for their own preparedness and safety during an emergency. The community is strengthening their resilience and responsiveness to disasters and emergencies. They are better connected, and that will also help them in times of recovery.”
The Victorian Bushfire Recovery Team is currently offering RediCommunities program sessions to several fire-affected communities, helping them strengthen community connections and resilience before, during and after emergencies. For more information, email Jessica Davison.