The floods prove volunteers can only do so much when the government goes awol

The following has been written by RFS volunteer in western Sydney and a GetUp member. He gives his view on the Morrison government’s failure to respond and provide vital support for communities suffering in the floods that have devastated Queensland and New South Wales. This has happened before and carries a terrible sense of déjà vu, he says. Perhaps this time around people will remember this in the coming election and beyond. Australia needs a comprehensive plan to deal with disasters.

Watching the flood waters rise in the Northern Rivers, Queensland and far western Sydney last week, I’ve had a horrible sense of deja vu.

Dread. Exhaustion. Abandonment. And a rising, furious anger.

I’ve been a New South Wales Rural Fire Service volunteer for several years. My unit is based in the Blue Mountains. In late 2019, I was involved in what is now called the Black Summer.

These floods are horribly reminiscent of that time. Not just because of the scale of the disaster, but because people in so, he says me of the worst circumstances imaginable have, again, been abandoned by the government.

Over Black Summer, the prime minister went overseas for a holiday. He should have been in Australia, if only to demonstrate support for the communities that were really suffering. It was an insensitive thing to do – especially when people like myself were giving up time with our kids to protect our communities.

I can only talk for myself, but I was baffled that there was so little support for RFS volunteers and our communities from the federal government. Seeing the scenes from Lismore and Brisbane and Richmond over the last week, I get the same feeling.

Photo by Jason O’Brien/AAP: A street in South Lismore after the flood

The months of Black Summer were the hardest of my life. Not just because of the fires, or the fear and devastation I saw in the towns, or the nights, days and weekends away from my kids. As the months dragged on, and me and my mates exhausted ourselves trying to defend or save what we could, I was thinking: where’s the government? When are they coming to help? Why are we on our own?

Firefighting and preparation are some of the most backbreaking work you can do. Imagine hacking defensive lines through the scrub, backburning in dense bush, dragging heavy equipment through difficult, dangerous terrain to put out fires and doing most of that in heavy PPE and thick smoke.

None of that was surprising – it comes with the job. But the length and intensity of that fire season was something else.

For weeks on end, I spent every moment I physically could on the fireground. When I couldn’t do that, I helped people in the community prepare or went to my full-time job. I spent New Year’s Eve patrolling a defensive burn. I’d get stopped on the street by people who wanted to know what was happening. There was no downtime.

Life became a blur. I barely saw my kids although it was school holidays. I ran out of paid leave, so I took unpaid leave. That was a financial hit. There’s little else you can do when your community is at risk and when your mates are as tired as you are. There’s no one else to do it.

This is no criticism of the RFS. The RFS was amazing. I always felt supported and still do. They did an unbelievable job with the resources they had. The communities, too, were unbelievable – you have no idea how much that meant. People brought us home cooked meals. Kids drew pictures. Everyone knew that season was above and beyond.

Photo by Jamie Barrett: Woodburn one of the destroyed towns abandoned and left to volunteers to cope with rescue and the clean up alone.

But volunteers need time to heal. Seeing burnt-out houses and hearing stories of people dying to defend their homes, seeing that level of fire intensity and living on high alert for months scars you. It feels like a lifetime and several world-changing events away, but Black Summer was only two years ago.

That’s another reason I think these floods are so frightening. They’re evidence that climate change is already here, and we are nowhere near prepared for it. Anyone on the ground will tell you that the summers are getting hotter, and the fires are getting worse. We’ve had at least four major catastrophic fires in recent history.

Climate change means the old volunteer model we’ve used for decades to respond to natural disasters isn’t as effective. It was never designed to tie people up for weeks or months at a time. Many volunteers are older too; there’s only so long they can do the physical work the RFS requires.

Listening to politicians talk about people being “tough” and “resilient” makes me so angry now. We are tough, but we’re human too. We have families and responsibilities that we can’t just set aside. When a disaster like Black Summer or these floods happens, community spirit only gets you so far.

We need dedicated government support – not just more funding and bodies on the ground, but a wholesale reassessment of what disasters from now on are going to look like, and what we’ll need to help people through them

We also need a government that finally bites the bullet and admits that corporations burning coal and gas are heating the planet, which is killing people and destroying entire communities.

Australia is the third-largest exporter of fossil fuels in the world – behind only Russia and Saudi Arabia. Pretending that our massive coal and gas exports aren’t fuelling these disasters is unbelievably cynical.

I want a government that helps me to help my community when we need it. People want to help their neighbours. It’s a natural instinct. But to just expect regular people to do all the work without backing them to do it is crazy. It feels like, on a fundamental level, the government just doesn’t get that.

I hope I’m wrong. I hope that the floods wake us up in a way the fires didn’t. When the election comes around, I hope people remember who turned up to help, and who didn’t.

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