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Byron Shire
March 2, 2021

How fire ready is local government?

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Hans Lovejoy

With local fire season commenced from Septmeber 1, a last minute request for a staff report on the devastating fires late last year was unanimously supported at last Thursday’s Council meeting.

The motion, by Greens councillor Sarah Ndiaye, asks staff for a report at the next ordinary meeting in relation to the 2019/20 bushfires. 

Duranbah fire ground. Photo Cudgen RFS Brigade.

It comes as the NSW Bushfire Inquiry recommendations were tabled last week. 

Council staff have been asked how interagency communications can be improved, along with preparing a community communications plan for future fire events. 

Information on Council’s role in fire management and other relevant local agency responsibilities is sought, along with information and evaluation around evacuation centres. Consideration of future planning decisions around fire impacts is also part of the motion, along with assessing the impact of the fires on the Shire’s residents and businesses. 

Evaluation a priority

Former Greens mayor and NSW MLC, Jan Barham, thanked councillors, and particularly Cr Sarah Ndiaye for asking for the report.

She told The Echo, ‘With no Council report, we aren’t informed, and that reduces our ability to respond better next time. 

‘What I’m hoping for is a well informed investigation into what happened, and a response that improves the quality of the preparedness. This represents another issue where I think the organisation failed in their duty to inform Council and community. The elected councillors however, did recognise the importance and need to move quickly’. 

Ms Barham asked staff at the June 2020 meeting if a fire report had been published. Director Infrastructure Services, Phil Holloway, replied ‘Not per se’, but said staff ‘provided regular updates to Council on the fire situation’.

Ms Barham said, ‘I was shocked at the lack of the report; incident evaluation is something the organisation should have as a priority’.

‘Council used to do it for NYE, for floods, coastal erosion etc… why not this? Many people were anxious and traumatised by the event.

‘The rural risk is high, especially with all the new tourism developments this Council supports.

‘Non-residents can’t be expected to know what to do in an emergency; most would come from a city. 

‘If Council approves tourism in those [rural] areas, then they also carry a responsibility for public safety, residents and visitors’.

She added, ‘I don’t think councillors are fully aware of their role when it comes to “duty of care” and if there was a death, they would learn quickly via a Coronial Inquest’. 

Additionally, in 2017 Ms Barham asked Council staff the status of the Draft Emergency Communications Plan. She says it is unavailable and at the time, the Communications Committee determined it be reported to the October 2017 Council meeting and placed on public exhibition. The Echo has asked for this document, but is yet to receive a reply from staff. 

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