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Bushfire Recovery Projects: Touch One, Touch All

Fire torn bushland in Victoria, Australia

Victorian union leadership visited two bushfire recovery projects in East Gippsland last week, jointly funded by $132,700 in donations from Victorian union members and bushfire recovery grants.

Victorian Trades Hall Council Secretary Luke Hilakari said that the bushfire response from unions was “an act of solidarity with bushfire-affected communities from workers across Victoria”.

At the beginning of 2020 the Victorian Trades Hall Council, made up of the leaders elected by each union in workplaces across Victoria, voted to raise a levy to fund bushfire recovery efforts, and with the assistance of the Victorian Government identified two community-led projects to fund.

“So many union members were impacted by bushfires last year - in their homes and communities, and also as workers on the front line,” said Luke. “There was an instant recognition that we had to help. It’s our values; touch one, touch all.”

Sarsfield

Sarsfield, just outside of Bairnsdale, had half the town burn down during the devastating bushfire season of 2019/20. This is to say nothing of the shedding, fencing and other infrastructure vital to the town’s economy and residents’ livelihoods. Power was lost for five days. The clean-up effort took most of 2020 to complete. 

Only in the last few months have house frames started to spring up across the scarred landscape.

During this time, the need for community spaces became starkly apparent.

This is why Rotary District 9820 were overjoyed to receive funds raised by Victorian union members to support upgrade works on the Sarsfield Community Hall.

According to Rotary Emergency Management Chair Janne Speirs, “In the event of a future disaster, a well-equipped and protected venue with multiple power sources would be able to assist residents in storing food during a power outage, cooking, et cetera. For those who have lost homes, but who are desperate to still be on their properties, this venue would have hygienic toileting and showering facilities as well.”

But community isn’t just about coming together in times of crisis. It’s about the good times too. “It is expected that the new kitchen and other facilities will also be an encouragement for locals to use the venue for important celebrations including birthday parties, engagements, wedding receptions and other functions,” said Speirs.

After the horrors of the bushfires, and of course the year that followed, communities like Sarsfield deserve a place to come together in celebration and joy.

Tamboon

To get to Tamboon it’s a 30-kilometre drive along a single, narrow road from the closest town of Cann River in East Gippsland. It’s part bitumen, but mostly dirt. It’s the only road in and out, through the beautiful Croajingalong National Park. Once you reach the end - the remote community and the Peachtree Creek Parks Victoria campground - you realise just how remote the place is. And how cut off from the world you would be if the road became inaccessible.

This is exactly what happened in the 2019/20 bushfires when the road was closed, preventing land evacuation and the provision of critical supplies to the community. The road remained closed from 30 December 2019 to 29 January 2021.

Cut off from escape or the supply of vital provisions by road, residents and visitors in Tamboon were forced down to the water where a four-kilometre boat trip across the inlet is the only way to reach the ocean. We saw many instances of people being rescued by the Navy during this period, but even reaching the sea can be difficult for many communities.

The problems of evacuation, beyond the smoke and lack of vision, were compounded by the condition of the jetty and boat ramp in the inlet. The water level in the entrance can vary by over 2.5 metres. The fixed-height jetty was often underwater or so high above the water as to be unusable. Furthermore, when submerged, it is a navigation hazard for those unfamiliar with its location, and when visibility is poor. In the past there has been one collision damaging a boat and several near-misses.

High Water Mark in Tamboon, Victoria, Australia

Money raised by Victorian union members has now been used to build a floating jetty that will address these problems and make potential future evacuations much easier.

It is accessible by land and sea year-round, at all times, no matter the water level. It also features massive safety improvements for users, including improved access for people with disabilities.

“We wanted to find community-led projects, because ordinary working people should be empowered to make determinations about the needs of their community,” said Luke Hilakari, who was struck by the overwhelming generosity of unions and their members.

"Workers in union face tough times together, and it is our instinct to run to help each other in times of difficulty."

Victorian union leadership visited two bushfire recovery projects in East Gippsland last week, jointly funded by $132,700 in donations from Victorian union members and bushfire recovery grants.

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