Climate change, drought ignored as Bega Valley recovery struggles on

Cobargo in July. Photo: Sue Bull

The drought and devastation caused by the Black Summer fires in the Eden-Monaro region in New South Wales is still very apparent. But Bega Valley residents who survived the bushfires in Cobargo and surrounds say the major parties are reluctant to talk about real climate change solutions.

Driving from Gippsland, Victoria on the Princes Highway to southern NSW, the blackened skeletons of trees with their fuzz of new green growth frames almost every ridge. In Cobargo most of the smouldering black ruins have been replaced by alarming gaps of nothingness in this still charming, but damaged, heritage town.

The drought, which the NSW Department of Primary Industries says is now in its third year,is very noticeable too. Locals say that barely registered during the Eden-Monaro byelection, possibly because politicians did not want to talk about how to mitigate climate change.

Sally Josh and Kate Gooden live in Dignams Creek, about 12 kilometres north of Cobargo. They had to evacuate their property twice during the fires. On New Year’s Eve, they escaped, terrified, at 5am to Bermagui but then had to evacuate to Bega some 60 kilometres away as the fires raced to Bermagui.

Gooden and Josh survived New Year’s Eve, but they almost didn’t the second time. On January 23, the fire came into the Dignam’s Creek valley. That day, the fire descended over the hill and ravaged the Creek valley. They were lucky, again, but several of their neighbours lost their houses, sheds, fences and paddocks.

While their plan was always to evacuate, their friend Deborah Gough and her partner, who live at Verona, 10 kilometres south of Cobargo, had a stay-and-defend plan. They rear heritage chickens and dairy goats, and believed their property could be saved with careful preparation. They did save it, but only after 12 gruelling and terrifying hours.

Gough told Green Left she still feels traumatised. The three women say that there is still a long road to go to recover, while talking up the local community’s efforts to pull together and help each other in generous and thoughtful ways.

But while government funds and local projects have made improvements, the women are frustrated that none of the recovery plans are seriously taking climate change into account.

Without focusing on sustainable land use, water use and renewable energy, every summer could turn into a nightmare.

“I get really angry that nobody is saying that [the Black Summer fires] was the wake up we needed … [Decisions are] all economically driven. I’m talking neoliberal economics and profit-driven,” Gough said. “I can’t believe we’re talking about resilience, rather than prevention … There was nothing in the byelection. Certainly the [major] party platforms didn’t seem to mention climate change.”

Gooden told Green Left that the former mayor of Bega Valley and Labor candidate in the Eden-Monero byelection Kirsty McBain gained popularity because she was one of the few officials “brave enough to get out of her comfort zone, visit frightened people and give sensible information”.

Josh said that Fiona Kotvojs, the Liberal candidate, who also lives in Dignam’s Creek, downplays the need for climate action. Kotvojs comes from one of the rich old farming families in the region.

The Greens did put clear climate change initiatives, under the slogan “A strong economy needs a safe climate,” however Cathy Griff’s vote decline by 3%. The Shooters, Fishers and Farmers Party picked up more than 5%.

Gooden believes the Greens lost votes because people still believe the right-wing propaganda that the Greens’ supposed opposition to back burning caused the fires, not climate change.

The three women say that, since the fires, there has been no leadership to make life on the South Coast safer. BlazeAid, backpacker volunteers supported by government grants, for example, provides labour for re-fencing and rebuilding of farms. While other grants focus on restocking.

Yet, as Gooden points out, none of this takes into account the severe, ongoing, drought. Restocking at previous levels is not sustainable, she said. “There’s no assistance to think through what a more sustainable approach would involve. They can’t even put the powerlines underground to create more jobs ... What’s perplexing is that [politicians] believe the scientists about the coronavirus but not about climate change.”

Josh agrees. “There’s a lot of rhetoric around about not going back to ‘business as usual’ but in reality, it is all back to business as usual.” She believes that the days of the good life for people on the South Coast are numbered, and everyone will be facing another frightening summer.

“I don’t normally look forward to winter,” Gooden said. “But it’s only 12 weeks and then we’re in for [more fires] again. What would give us hope is some real recognition that climate change is real and leadership to address it.”

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