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Byron Shire
February 3, 2023

Community leads response and recovery in Wilsons Creek, Wangaui and Huonbrook

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Fijian and Australian defence forces working on building walking access to Huonbrook. Photo Jeff Dawson

There are many people in the Upper Wilsons Creek, Wanganui, and Huonbrook area that are still locked in as roads vanished, having turned into waterways or landslides during the recent flood.  

‘It is like walking through a Jurassic jungle,’ said Councillor, and resident of the area, Sama Balson who trekked into the areas yet to have full access opened up with fellow councillors Duncan Dey and Mark Swivel on the weekend. 

‘There are no roads in some areas, massive boulders over 20 tonnes have been washed down the mountains and creeks. But this has ended up being one of the most coordinated community responses,’ she told The Echo

RFS on the ground from day one

While the electricity was out for five days and most communications were limited to satellite connections, or perhaps a bar if you climbed a mountain or a tree, Captain of the Wilsons Creek Rural Fire Service (RFS) John Milford still had connection to Firecom through the RFS dedicated radio system. 

‘Firecom called on that first day and asked if I could get to the second crossing as there might be a fatality so I said I’d have a go. There was a woman with two broken ankles and her boyfriend who had been in a house when a landslide had come through it at 7am that morning. Sarah from the Mullumbimby Ambulance Service had come up as far as the school and we had walked up around landslides and through flooded areas to get to the injured people. I had our RFS PMR radio and she had satellite and while they were both patchy she tried to get a helicopter in to lift them out.’ 

Unfortunately, the weather was too bad and a helicopter couldn’t get into rescue them until the next day but Sarah stayed with the injured woman until she was airlifted out. 

Captain Milford said that the police chief of Byron Police Station Matt Keheo was on the scene the next day and they walked through the bush to check on residents, in particular ones who Captain Milford knew were vulnerable. 

Thie following day a team of about 100 volunteers and the tactical police team that had arrived from Bankstown hiked in to bring supplies and assist the community. 

‘By this time Steve and Josh Brown had opened the first two crossings,’ said Captain Milford who has been on the ground almost everyday for the last three weeks. 

‘Some of my brigade members went into Mullumbimby to help with the clean up there and some went up to the key community coordination point at Justin and Kim’s place to provide relief there.’

Community capacity 

Cr Balson says the community quickly came together in the areas that were cut off to form community coordination groups, check on one another and ensure help and resources got to where they were needed.  

‘There are daily meetings with representatives from each valley who then take information back to their areas. These areas were defined by points of access and we were lucky that within each of these areas there was someone who could get some communication access.

‘The immediate response was from local farmers and people with machinery and many local professional arborists who were able to start clearing access,’ she said. 

‘Many of these people have volunteered and worked for weeks to clear trees etc to create access.’

Better coordination needed from Resilience Byron

Captain Milford said that the RFS volunteers and the local community were able to lead the community response and ‘all residents who wanted to be evacuated were evacuated.’

‘Resilience Byron did help with the coordination and the private helicopter companies but they also caused some confusion,’ he told The Echo

‘There were a number of helicopter rescues which were incorrectly tasked. The volunteer helicopter response really needed to link in with the local emergency response teams on the ground.’

Heading up the landslide for a cup of tea. Photo Sama Balson

Working on access

Both Cr Balson and Captain Milford have said that access to radios for local communication, and communication with emergency services, is an important learning from this crisis. 

‘The RFS can contact Firecom through our radio network even when other communications are down; they can contact ambulance, council, other emergency services including helicopters, whatever is needed. We do all of that already as we’ve been doing it for years and years,’ said Captain Milford. 

Fiftenn minutes later the Fijian Army had turned the landslide into steps for their return. Photo Sama Balson

On Sunday (20 March) the Australian and Fijian defence forces along with Council were doing major work on getting foot and road access for locals.

‘The Fijian army are there with the ADF using chainsaws, axes and spades to transform the landscape making it accessible by foot. The Fijians worked and sang and warmed the heart of the community. They are able to look around and utilise the resources on the ground milling bridge planks from fallen, uprooted trees. We went up a steep bank to a house for a cup of tea and fifteen minutes later when we returned they had made steps down the embankment,’ said Cr Balson. 

‘The council staff have been working around the clock to remain connected to the community, respond to and update them. 

‘The “Huonbrook hole” is now the “dip” and the timing of the army being in place and creating access now gives the community a chance to come up for air. 

‘However, there are 197 major spots on Byron Shire that need to be repaired. This will cost billions of dollars and we are still gathering information. There are landslides that are still moving. We need to look at the unique set of needs of each community. The needs in Mullumbimby will be different to Main Arm which are different to Huonbrook.’ 

Cr Balson says that this is a ‘wake up call’.

‘We need to start to future proof the way we live. This is what the science [of climate change] has predicted, we are in it and we need to face that reality and act accordingly. We need to work on infrastructure, types of housing, communications and environmental rehabilitation side-by-side. We need to learn from past techniques and merge them with future technologies to build fire and flood resilience.’

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