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Summer of hell has been replaced by coronavirus, but royal commission points to a troubling future


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Summer of hell has been replaced by coronavirus, but royal commission points to a troubling future

Six months ago, Australia was burning.The ferocious bushfire season and blankets of smoke were all that millions of Australians could think about. It was a disastrous start to the year, but a wake-up call to Australia.A royal commission was called in response to the blazes, to look at what could have been done to reduce…

Summer of hell has been replaced by coronavirus, but royal commission points to a troubling future

Six months ago, Australia was burning.

The ferocious bushfire season and blankets of smoke were all that millions of Australians could think about.

It was a disastrous start to the year, but a wake-up call to Australia.

A royal commission was called in response to the blazes, to look at what could have been done to reduce the scale of damage, what is happening to help people affected and what changes can be made to make sure it doesn’t happen again.

Fast forward a few months and the commission’s first two weeks of witness evidence was drowned out, unsurprisingly so, by another disaster — the ongoing pandemic the likes of which we’ve never seen in our lifetime — and the protests in the US.

It’s a strange environment for the commission — not only has it taken a backseat to COVID-19, the virus also means all witnesses are appearing by video link. A blessing for people scattered around the country, a curse for the technical operators who are trying to make it as seamless as possible.

But while coronavirus has distracted us, the horrors of the last fire season remain something we cannot turn away from and, if the experts are correct, will face again soon enough.

Orange haze obscures Parliament House.

The smoke was responsible for 445 deaths and thousands of hospitalisations.(AAP: Lukas Coch)

Yes, the fires really were that bad

Anecdotally, this bushfire season seemed worse than other years and much of the evidence to the commission has backed that up.

Updated figures revealed 35 million hectares of land was destroyed, $2.2 billion in insurance claims have been paid out and $274 million in disaster recovery payments have been made.

Compounding the direct impact of the fires was the secondary impact of the smoke — it was responsible for 445 deaths and thousands of hospitalisations, costing a total of $2 billion, the same amount the Government set aside for the entire bushfire recovery fund.

Bushfires are considered part and parcel of summer, what made this different was the severity and number of bushfires burning at once. One of the witnesses described how, at one point, there were hundreds of kilometres of fire front in one state alone.

Ecologically, the full extent of the damage is still being assessed but experts have labelled it a “disaster”, saying even previously secure populations are now at risk.

A child is seen being lifted by a man into the arms of a woman aboard MV Sycamore. A Naval officer stands to the left, watching.

The Australian Defence Force were called in to help with evacuations from Mallacoota during the fires.(Supplied: Department of Defence)

This is about much more than fires

Reading through the witness lists for the first hearing block you might be surprised to find earthquake and tsunami experts.

That’s because, as the title of the commission aptly states, it is the Royal Commission into National Natural Disaster Arrangements.

What we’ve heard so far is that, according to modelling from the Bureau of Meteorology and insurance agencies, not only are fires going to become more frequent and extreme, so are cyclones, droughts, hail storms and flash floods.

While these predictions are not new, the last bushfire season showed the potential destruction when multiple events happen at once — drought, followed by fire, followed by flood.

Worse still, the commission heard even if we do reduce our greenhouse gas emissions, the effect of a warming climate has “partially locked in” future extreme weather events.

Imagine if, while southern Australia was ablaze, tropical cyclones tear through cities further north. These are the scenarios we have begun to face.

How states and territories are supposed to prepare for simultaneous disasters on an as-of-yet unforeseen scale is exactly what the commission is hoping to find out, partly by using the last bushfire season as a test case.

But as Commissioner Dr Annabelle Bennett flagged earlier this week, unlike other royal commissions, this one is not about hauling people over the coals and laying blame.

It’s about fact finding so that we are in the best possible position for when the inevitable happens once again.

A firefighter is seen in front of a large bushfire burning through a structure.

There is currently no national fire map because each jurisdiction uses different data systems.(AAP: Dan Himbrechts)

National information sharing needs to be better

Coronavirus has shown how states and territories can work efficiently to a common goal.

It is a different picture when it comes to information sharing before, during and after a disaster.

It was shocking to hear the barriers people on the ground faced as the fires crossed state borders and the lengths some went to to find “work arounds”.

In some cases, it meant putting extra planes in already dangerous skies to be able to communicate with crews on the ground because the aerial firefighters didn’t have the right radios for the state they were sent to.

Or the fact that we don’t even have a national fire map because data on active fires isn’t shared in one centralised space.

Support payments also vary, meaning, as National Bushfire Recovery Agency Coordinator Andrew Colvin described, how much assistance you get could depend on which side of an “artificial line” you live.

The commission’s heard each state and territory has been using their own systems for decades and try, to the best of their ability, to facilitate cross-border collaboration.

These differences mean it would be a mammoth task to not only find some kind of standardisation across them all but then migrate all the information into a new, nationally available network.

How that should and could happen is something the Commissioners will no doubt be pursuing.

Commonwealth may have to take a bigger role

Part of the focus of the last week’s hearings was on the Commonwealth’s role in disaster response and coordination.

Unlike other countries, we don’t have any overarching laws that let the Federal Government automatically step in and begin offering assistance in disasters. Currently the states and territories have to ask before it can be provided.

This was a hot button issue last season when the Government was criticised for deploying the Australian Defence Force without telling the New South Wales Rural Fire Services Commissioner and rumours swirled that the Premier had rejected offers of help.

Two senior Defence Force members appeared before the commission, but neither were asked their opinion on how and when the force should be mobilised.

As for other forms of help, the commission heard the reason there’s no uniform policy is because, historically, the states have been pretty good at holding their own.

But as disasters become more frequent and state and territory resources are stretched even further, the question turns to what support the Commonwealth could, or should, provide into the future.

These questions are understandably complex, but are exactly the kind the commission has been given the power to delve into and scrutinise more when it resumes later this month.

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