‘We know our community better than they do’: why local knowledge is key to disaster recovery in Gippsland


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Celeste Young, Victoria University and Roger Jones, Victoria UniversityOvercoming the odds is second nature to the Gippsland community. The people in this region have seen it all — fires, floods, droughts and extreme weather. And every time, these capable, resourceful and independent communities bounce back.

However, recovery from bushfires of the 2019/2020 Black Summer followed by the COVID-19 pandemic has been different.

Even before these events, we were researching vulnerability to natural hazards, risk ownership and diversity and inclusion nationally as part of our work with the Bushfire and Natural Hazards Cooperative Research Centre.

Through a mix of interviews, focus groups and surveys, we sought insights about communities, how they recover after disaster and what factors have the greatest impact. We focused on community strengths and how to build on them.

Our recently released report, Growing the seeds: recovery, strength and capability in Gippsland communities, highlights that recovery is often non-linear. It’s not just the damage to infrastructure, houses, environment and farmland that makes recovery difficult; the emotional and physical toll is often gruelling as well.

The report identifies several opportunities for change, including the need for a long-term plan (five years minimum) for building community emergency management capability in the region — well before the next disaster strikes.

Our research highlights recovery is often non-linear, an observation well supported by other research in this field.
Growing the seeds report.

A brutal time

The 2019–20 fires damaged over half of the East Gippsland Shire, an area of over
1.16 million hectares. Over 400 dwellings and businesses were lost and four people lost their lives. Areas like Mallacoota were at acute risk. In some areas, communities were under threat for weeks and evacuated repeatedly, exhausting them before the recovery process began.

Then, the pandemic hit, disrupting the established pattern of recovery where people get together to make sense of what has happened and start to rebuild their communities. One person describe the timing as “brutal”. Another said:

When the fires happened, you had a couple of amazing people who stepped up, opened the hall, and everyone was coming in, and they started doing Friday night dinners and everyone was there. There were 200-odd people every Friday night and then COVID ended it.

Via online community consultations, interviews and focus groups, we asked community members to identify strengths that supported recovery and opportunities for change.

We also surveyed 614 people during October 2020 in fire-affected regions of Victoria and New South Wales, with 31% of respondents coming from Victoria and 69% from NSW.

When asked what strengths their community showed following the bushfires, they included generosity and kindness (69%), resilience (61%) and active volunteering (59%).


Growing the seeds report., Author provided

When asked to identify the main challenges since the bushfire, COVID was named as the main challenge (49%), followed by damage to the environment (39%), anxiety (31%) and overall fatigue (26%).


Growing the seeds report., Author provided

The combination of bushfires and the pandemic also created economic risks and disrupted supply chains. Small businesses make up 98% of the local economy, and many are heavily reliant on tourism.

Recovering through community strength and capability

Many of the strengths needed to drive recovery and resilience are already at the heart of these communities. These capabilities are more diverse and widespread than is often assumed.

There is considerable wealth and capacity in some areas, but also a high level of social and economic vulnerability, with some living hand-to-mouth.

There is significant local knowledge of risk management and recovery, which is often overlooked by experts coming in from outside. As one person told us:

You’ve got bureaucracy coming in from Melbourne who think that we’re just a bunch of country bumpkins who don’t quite know what we’re doing, yet we know our community better than they do.

Volunteer and informal economies are significant and underpin community resilience. Yet formal recovery strategies don’t target these areas very well; some people in the informal economy found they did not qualify for economic or business support at all.

The JobSeeker and JobKeeper programs helped maintain employment (albeit at levels of productivity that were lower than in the past). JobKeeper has now ended but support is still needed to boost productivity and help the local economy recover.

We also found:

  • government and some supporting agencies often lacked knowledge about the cultural, physical and social structures of different communities
  • some policies had perverse effects (for example, the HomeBuilder grant resulted in a lack of available builders)
  • programs and communication were often not tailored and did not accommodate the diverse needs of communities or specific cohorts within them
  • a lack of clarity as to what role the community have in response and recovery, and what risks they are responsible for
  • short-term allocation of resources and funding sometimes created an environment of uncertainty; for example, some participants raised concerns vulnerable community members may at risk when contracts for certain programs ran out, as the service offered would either cease or be led by a new contract-holder. As one person told us:

You can’t just bring someone in now and go, ‘Here you go, you take over all my people’, because the relationships and the trust that you build over this time, it’s not something you can hand over to someone else.

Knowing community strengths and supporting them

Recovery processes will never be perfect and we can also no longer assume communities will have time to recover from one disaster before the next arrives. As one person said:

People are suffering collective trauma, which creates anxiety and irritability. So, it is going to be difficult to move forward and I believe [name removed] will be a really changed place, this is something that will echo up and down along all fire-ravaged communities.

In natural hazard prone areas like Gippsland, it’s crucial to know what strengths already exist in the community so they can be harnessed when disaster hits. In other words, we need to find ways to support and grow community capabilities.

Listening to communities

It’s crucial communities, governments and the emergency services have a shared understanding of what the priorities are after a disaster and what can be realistically achieved.

A database of community capabilities would support more effective planning, policy-making and program development, as would a longer term collaborative project to identify and develop community capability.

Through listening to these communities we can learn from their experiences and support the development of community-led pathways to recovery.




Read more:
More than a decade after the Black Saturday fires, it’s time we got serious about long-term disaster recovery planning


If this article has raised issues for you, or if you’re concerned about someone
you know, call Lifeline on 13 11 14. This story is part of a series The Conversation is running on the nexus between disaster, disadvantage and resilience. You can read the rest of the stories here.
The Conversation

Celeste Young, Collaborative Research Fellow, Sustainable Industries and Liveable Cities (ISILC), Victoria University and Roger Jones, Professorial Research Fellow, Victoria University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Increasing tree cover may be like a ‘superfood’ for community mental health



Imagine Hyde Park in Sydney without its tree cover … the impact on this space and the many people who spend time in it would be profound.
EA Given/Shutterstock

Thomas Astell-Burt, University of Wollongong and Xiaoqi Feng, University of Wollongong

Increasing tree canopy and green cover across Greater Sydney and increasing the proportion of homes in urban areas within 10 minutes’ walk of quality green, open and public space are among the New South Wales premier’s new priorities. Cities around Australia have similar goals. In our latest study, we asked if more of any green space will do? Or does the type of green space matter for our mental health?

Our results suggest the type of green space does matter. Adults with 30% or more of their neighbourhood covered in some form of tree canopy had 31% lower odds of developing psychological distress. The same amount of tree cover was linked to 33% lower odds of developing fair to poor general health.

We also found poorer mental and general health among adults in areas with higher percentages of bare grass nearby, but there’s likely more to that than meets the eye.




Read more:
Green for wellbeing – science tells us how to design urban spaces that heal us


Treed neighbourhoods have a natural appeal to people.
Tim Gouw/Unsplash

How did we do the research?

Our research involved tracking changes in health over an average of about six years, for around 46,000 adults aged 45 years or older, living in Sydney, Newcastle or Wollongong. We examined health in relation to different types of green space available within a 1.6 kilometre (1 mile) walk from home.

Our method helped to guard against competing explanations for our results, such as differences in income, education, relationship status, sex, and age. We also restricted the sample to adults who did not move home, because it is plausible that people who are already healthier (for instance because they are more physically active) move into areas with more green space.

So is the answer simply more trees and less grass? Not exactly. Let’s get into the weeds.




Read more:
Green space – how much is enough, and what’s the best way to deliver it?


Trees make it cool to walk

Imagine you’re walking down a typical street on a summer’s day in the middle of an Australian city. It’s full of right angles, grey or dark hard surfaces, glass structures, and innumerable advertisements competing for your attention. Then you turn a corner and your gaze is drawn upwards to a majestic tree canopy exploding with a vivid array of greens for as far as you can see.

A tree-lined street like Swanston Street in Melbourne is a more walkable street.
kittis/Shutterstock

Let’s get the obvious out of the way. Walking down this green street, you may instantly feel some relief from the summer heat.

Studies are linking high temperatures with heat exhaustion and mental health impacts. Research has suggested trees, rather than other forms of green space, may be best at reducing temperatures in cities. It may also simply be more comfortable to walk outside in cooler temperatures – not to mention going for a run or bike ride, both of which are good for mental health.




Read more:
Our cities need more trees, but some commonly planted ones won’t survive climate change


Feeling restored and alert

But as the minutes of walking beneath this natural umbrella of lush foliage accumulate, other things are happening too. The vibrant colours, natural shapes and textures, fresh aromas, and rustling of leaves in the breeze all provide you with effortless distraction and relief from whatever it was you might have been thinking about, or even stressing over.

Trees can provide a soothing sensory distraction from our troubles.
Jake Ingle/Unsplash

Studies back this up. Walks through green space have been shown to reduce blood pressure, improve mental acuity, boost memory recall, and reduce feelings of anxiety. The Japanese have a name for this type of experience: shinrin-yoku.

Friends, old and new

You walk past groups of people on the footpath taking time to catch up over coffee in the shade. Some research has found that tree cover, rather than green space more generally, is a predictor of social capital. Social capital, according to Robert Putnam, refers to the “social networks and the associated norms of reciprocity and trustworthiness” that may have important influences on our life chances and health.

Dogs and trees both contribute to building healthy social relations.
Liubov Ilchuk/Unsplash

You walk further and a chorus of birdsong soars through the neighbourhood noise. Trees provide shelter and food for a variety of animals. Research suggests tree canopy tends to be more biodiverse than low-lying vegetation.

Increased biodiversity may support better mental health by enhancing the restorative experience and also via the immunoregulatory benefits of microbial “Old Friends” – microorganisms that helped shape our immune systems but which have been largely eliminated from our urban environments.

Green spaces with tree canopy are settings where communities can come together to watch birds and other animals, which can also be catalysts for new conversations and developing feelings of community belonging in the neighbourhoods where we live … just ask dog owners.




Read more:
Reducing stress at work is a walk in the park


So, what about the grass?

Our research did not show a mental health benefit from more bare grassed areas. This does not mean grass is bad for mental health.

Previous research suggests adults are less likely to wander in green spaces that are relatively plain and lacking in a variety of features or amenities.
This may also be partly attributable to preferences for green spaces with more complex vegetation, such as parks that mix grass with tree canopy.

Parks with a variety of vegetation, including trees and grass, may be more attractive for a wider range of outdoor activities than those with few trees.
Author

Furthermore, large areas of bare grass in cities can make built environments more spread-out and less dense. Without tree canopy to shield from the midday sun, this may increase the likelihood of people using cars for short trips instead of walking through a park or along a footpath. The result is missed opportunities for physical activity, mental restoration, and impromptu chats with neighbours. Previous work in the United States suggests this might be why higher death rates were found in greener American cities.

Grassed areas can occupy a large amount of space for surprisingly little mental health benefit.
chuttersnap/Unsplash

Large open areas of grass can be awesome for physical activity and sport, but let’s make sure there is also plenty of tree canopy too, while also thinking about ways to get more people outdoors in green spaces. Here are some suggestions.

Making Australia greener and healthier

As the density of Australian cities continues to increase and more of us live in apartments and/or work in high-rise office blocks, it is great to see strategies to invest in tree cover and urban greening more generally across Australia. Cities with such plans include Sydney, Melbourne, Brisbane, Bendigo, Fremantle, and Wollongong.

You can get involved and have some fun at the same time too. Lots of evidence says gardening is really great for your mental health. So why not grab a mate and spend a couple of hours planting a tree on July 28 for National Tree Day!The Conversation

Both the act of planting a tree and its presence over the decades are good for us.
Amy Fry/flickr, CC BY-NC-SA

Thomas Astell-Burt, Professor of Population Health and Environmental Data Science, NHMRC Boosting Dementia Research Leadership Fellow, University of Wollongong and Xiaoqi Feng, Associate Professor of Epidemiology and NHMRC Career Development Fellow, University of Wollongong

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Logging burns conceal industrial pollution in the name of ‘community safety’



File 20180516 104311 1sl5vdo.jpg?ixlib=rb 1.1
High intensity logging burns and the resulting smoke plume near Mount Baw Baw, April 2018
Photo Chris Taylor., Author provided

Chris Taylor, University of Melbourne and David Lindenmayer, Australian National University

Earlier this year, Melbourne and large areas of Central Victoria, experienced days of smoke haze and poor air quality warnings as a result of planned burns. It’s a regular event occurring every autumn.

This smoke has been reported by both government and media outlets as largely the result of planned burns to reduce bushfire risk, along with agricultural burn-offs and increased use of wood heaters.




Read more:
Firestorms: the bushfire/thunderstorm hybrids we urgently need to understand


But this is only part of the story. A good proportion of the smoke this autumn has actually come from the intensive burning of debris left behind after clearfell logging. This is essentially industrial pollution.

Smoke Haze over Mooroolbark and Melbourne’s eastern suburbs on Tuesday 1 May 2018, shortly after the time when the Poor Air Quality Index reached 901.
Photo: Chris Taylor, Author provided

Industrial clearfell logging vs fuel reduction

To understand why clearfell logging burns are different compared with planned burns to reduce bushfire risk, we need to understand clearfell logging, which involves cutting most or all of the commercially valued trees in one single operation across a designated area (called a “coupe”).

Large volumes of forest biomass are left on the ground following clearfell logging in the Mount Disappointment State Forest with the Melbourne City Skyline in the background, August 2010.
Photo. Chris Taylor., Author provided

In the process of clearfell logging, understorey vegetation is usually pushed over. Along with tree heads and branches left behind after logging, large volumes of debris – known as “slash” – are created. This is partially removed by applying a high intensity burn across the coupe, which in turn establishes an ash seed bed for the next crop of trees to be established. Generally, around 90-100% of the coupe is burnt.

In contrast, planned burns to reduce bushfire risk (otherwise referred to as fuel reduction burns) are less intense. They mostly target “fine fuels” (vegetation less than 6mm in diameter) on the forest floor and in the understorey, which may average around 15 tonnes per hectare (t/ha). Burn coverage is usually 50-70% of the site.

Surface and understorey ‘fine fuels’ targeted in a recent low intensity burn near Mt Dandenong in April 2018.
Photo: Chris Taylor, Author provided

Clearfell logging burns consume much larger volumes of vegetation biomass in the form of tree heads, branches, bark and downed understorey vegetation. According to a report completed for the National Carbon Accounting System, clearfell logging burns consume, on average, 130 t/ha of slash in mixed-species forest and 140 t/ha of slash in Mountain Ash forests. This means that, while clearfell logging burns cover much less ground than fuel reduction burns, they burn far more biomass per hectare – generating far more smoke.

The list of planned burns on Forest Fire Management Victoria’s website showed that, at the beginning of May, 77 of the 119 burns either lit or planned to be lit across the Central Highlands of Victoria and surrounding areas were on logging coupes.




Read more:
After the firestorm: the health implications of returning to a bushfire zone


These burns were individually lit over a period of weeks, with some days predominantly logging burns, others fuel reduction burns. An example when logging burns were prominent occurred on April 20 this year, where 10 out of 12 planned burns were observed as occurring on logging coupes. Using a simple calculation based on average biomass consumption, fuel loads and burn coverage for logging and fuel reduction burns, we estimate that up to 99% of biomass burnt most likely occurred on logging coupes. The following day, the Environmental Protection Authority observed “poor” air quality at multiple air monitoring stations across Melbourne due to smoke.

MODIS Rapid Response Terra Satellite image taken 20 April 2018 showing the smoke intensity of the logging burns.
NASA 2018

Even on days when the majority of burns lit were for fuel reduction, planned logging burns still contributed a proportion of biomass burned. For example, on April 30, only three out of 12 planned burns were observed as occurring on logging coupes, but they may have contributed to around one-third of the total biomass burned.




Read more:
Future bushfires will be worse: we need to adapt now


Likewise, on the following day, the Environmental Protection Authority observed “very poor” air quality across multiple air monitoring stations. While multiple planned burns contributed to this pollution event, we contend that logging burns increased the levels of pollution in addition to the smoke originating from fuel reduction burns.

MODIS Rapid Response Terra Satellite image taken 30 April 2018 showing the smoke intensity of the planned burns.
NASA 2018

The key issue here is that not all “planned burns” are equivalent. Fuel reduction burns are intended to reduce the bushfire risk to lives and property. Indeed, work led by The Australian National University shows that regular fuel reduction burns can reduce risk to properties if carried out within close proximity.

In contrast, clearfell logging burns are part of an industrial process that extracts pulp logs and sawlogs for commercial sale to private enterprise. They play no part in reducing bushfire risk to life and property. Actually, the reverse is true: logging makes forests more prone to subsequent high-severity crown-consuming fires with associated risks to communities.




Read more:
Victoria’s logged landscapes are at increased risk of bushfire


Given that a substantial proportion of the recent smoke over Melbourne and surrounding regional Victoria likely originated from logging burns, could that smoke be deemed industrial pollution? This is a valid question, given the serious health impacts associated with smoke pollution.

The ConversationLogging burns would not be needed (and a substantial amount of associated smoke not generated) if the forest had not been logged in the first place. It is imperative that government departments inform the public about the smoke pollution coming from logging operations, whose purpose is for private commercial gain.

Chris Taylor, Researcher, University of Melbourne and David Lindenmayer, Professor, The Fenner School of Environment and Society, Australian National University

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.