Councils, associations at forefront of bushfire effort

Image shows two fire fighters in South Australia standing on top of a fire truck.

From running evacuation centres to firefighting, to driving machinery, fundraising, or distributing goods, local councils and local government associations from across the country are leading efforts to help bushfire-hit communities.

Here’s an overview of what’s been happening around Australia in recent weeks:

In New South Wales, general managers of six fire-affected councils on 3 January created a Regional Recovery Committee that will cover Bega Valley, Eurobodalla, Shoalhaven, Snowy Monaro, Snowy Valleys and Queanbeyan-Palerang Councils.

“The State will bring all key support agencies together to work with us to assess damage, determine people’s needs and start the next critical stages, including the transition from current evacuation centres to disaster welfare assistance, to best support communities across our whole Shire,” said support group deputy chair and Bega Valley Shire General Manager, Leanne Barnes.

Local Government New South Wales has collaborated with the NSW Office of Emergency Management, Minister for Local Government and City of Sydney to establish the Local Government Bushfire Recovery Support Group.

LGNSW President and ALGA Vice-President Cr Linda Scott said the group’s goals are to ensure the most coordinated response ever seen between NSW State and Local Governments.

Sydney Lord Mayor Clover Moore said the group matches offers of assistance from non-bushfire affected councils to communities in need, for example service vehicles and staff who will help with everything from tree and waste removal to engineering for the repair or replacement of basic civic infrastructure.

In Victoria, much of the ongoing emergency is happening in communities within the East Gippsland Shire Council’s local government area.

Council staff have been battling blazes, supporting emergency service agencies, operating emergency relief centres for people who’ve lost homes, and running waste collection services including letting residents dispose of food that spoilt because of power outages.

The Municipal Association of Victoria’s actions have included working with three State Government committees to help coordinate recovery and relief and emergency management, and joining teleconferences to convey councils’ concerns, including about animal welfare.

At the Northern Grampians Shire Council, whose area was itself hit by fires in 2014 and 2006, Mayor Murray Emerson expressed his thanks to community members.

“Feed chains for fire-affected farmers have been established across the region, residents have donated food, clothing, toys and other goods by the car-load, and financial contributions have surpassed previous disaster relief efforts by incredible margins,” he said.

In Queensland, South Burnett Regional Council, which has grappled with bush fires and the ongoing drought, has liaised with the Local Government Association of Queensland (LGAQ) to offer assistance to the QLD Fire Commissioner and Local Government NSW.

The LGAQ  donated $77,000 ($1,000 for each of its 77 local councils), which President Mark Jamieson said would be shared among several charities including the Red Cross, RSPCA and wildlife rescue group WIRES.

“As the level of government closest to the community, many councils are responding to growing numbers of requests from residents and organisations seeking advice on how they might assist,” Mayor Jamieson said.

Councils in WA have been hit by bush fires around Perth, and in the state’s far south, and in the Goldfields region which closed highways including the Eyre Highway between WA and South Australia.

Council staff have helped operate incident control and evacuation centres, and kept communities informed about road closures, food deliveries, and transport services.

The WA State Emergency Service’s Communications Support Unit (CSU), for example, told the Shire of Dundas that staff appreciated the unexpected support from the people of Norseman.

“The CSU has been in Norseman since December the 30th and during this time there has been a constant stream of locals coming in with home baked biscuits, cakes, scones, even doughnuts and croissants,” a post on the council’s Facebook said.

“These small gestures have an enormous effect on the morale and wellbeing of the Emergency Services and all who benefitted were greatly touched by them.”

The WA Local Government Association (WALGA) has been promoting bushfire support organisations to which councils can donate, and will meet WA’s State Recovery Coordinator next week.

The Local Government Association of Tasmania said while the island state has been lucky to have not had severe bush fires in recent weeks – unlike in early 2019 – it is continuing to liaise with the State Government about relief to councils and advice to emergency management personnel.

In South Australia, staff from dozens of councils have been working to support their counterparts affected by the Cudlee Creek in the Adelaide Hills and the Kangaroo Island fires via the Local Government Association of SA’s Local Government Functional Support Group.

Kingston District Council in SA’s southeast coast, for example, received unexpected help from staff of Adelaide’s City of Charles Sturt who helped their Kingston colleagues clear up trees along roads following the Keilira bush fire.

“What a great example of local government supporting local government right when we need it the most,” the district council wrote in a Facebook post.

“We are very grateful that the team are here and hope staff from both Council’s learn a little something from the experience.”

ALGA has been liaising with Commonwealth ministers and departments about federal assistance for local governments, and welcomes the initial $60m the Prime Minister announced on 9 January.