Recovery from a bushfire, flood, cyclone, or other natural hazard is complicated. It is different for each person and across communities. There is no switch to flick that leads to recovery, and no specific timeframes. With that in mind, what does community recovery look like after some of the worst bushfires ever recorded when it is combined with a global pandemic? Just as the 2009 Black Saturday bushfires fundamentally altered how bushfires are seen, the 2019-20 Black Summer bushfires have changed perceptions about community recovery across the country.
In Gippsland, in Victoria’s east, the bushfires were devastating. Over half of the East Gippsland Shire, an area of over 1.16 million hectares, was burnt from November, 2019, to February, 2020, destroying over 400 dwellings and businesses. Recovery was just beginning when the COVID-19 pandemic hit.
Research from the Bushfire and Natural Hazards CRC and Victoria University examined community recovery in this specific context, providing a starting point for assessing and understanding community capability for recovery in a practical sense. Specifically focusing on two local council areas in Victoria’s east—East Gippsland and Wellington Shire councils—the Understanding experiences and recovery capabilities of diverse communities in Gippsland post 2019-20 bushfires project examined the capabilities that currently exist and those that were important for these communities. The research aimed to explore how the two communities experienced their strengths and capabilities and how they were affected by 106 days of active bushfires, followed by the COVID-19 pandemic, and state-wide lockdown.
“In initial conversations, it became clear that community members wanted a different conversation to the ones they had been having,” project leader Celeste Young explained.
“They were seeking to be heard and understood—not as victims of the bushfires, but as people who needed support because of the bushfires. To accommodate this, we focused on community strength and capabilities.”
Joining Ms Young on the research team were her colleagues at Victoria University’s Institute for Sustainable Industries and Liveable Cities, Prof Roger Jones and Dr Craig Cormick. Together they explored:
- the capabilities that currently exist within Wellington and East Gippsland Shire communities and those the communities needed
- the key influences that shape these capabilities
- which capabilities are most important to the communities
- what is needed to support and grow these capabilities.
The team also surveyed neighbouring fire-affected regions of New South Wales to understand what was context specific. One finding was that NSW respondents were more likely to state that the bushfires had been more severe compared to previous fires.
In addition, researchers sought to understand the historical and changing risks, alongside economic and demographic perspectives derived from data analysis and reports in the East Gippsland and Wellington Shires.
Exploring community capability
Community capability was explored through the participants’ lens of the strengths and experiences of their recovery process, acquired through an online community conversation, semi-structured interviews and focus groups. The data collected was thematically analysed and categorised. Capabilities were then extracted from those themes and assessed by adapting an asset-based community development approach. An online survey saw 614 people from fire-affected communities in the East Gippsland Shire, Wellington Shire, other areas of Gippsland and regions of NSW give their views on communications, personal and community resilience, and attitudes towards the future.
“What we were originally aiming to do was something much smaller than this,” Ms Young explained. “But after doing the interviews, the workshop and the survey up and down the coast, we realised that what we really needed to understand was why. Why did this recovery play out differently and what sits beneath this?
“We also chose to focus on capabilities because often in risk responses people start with vulnerability, but when you are thinking about recovery it’s different as you are rebuilding, so you need to start with strengths. It also creates a really different conversation as you are looking at what people have and what they can do with that.”
Strengths and capabilities
Capabilities enable communities to achieve outcomes and were articulated by study participants as strengths. Overall capabilities were felt to be not well understood by those outside their community and often only known to those within communities or those working closely with them.
The most important strengths and capabilities identified by the communities were attribute-based, such as “hopeful”, “supportive”, and “compassion”. These were seen to underpin how communities function and were also strongly associated with resilience.
“One of the most important outcomes of this research was making visible what hasn’t been visible,” said Ms Young.
“These invisible attribute-based aspects aren’t typically looked at or measured, but they are actually really important indicators as a signal that communities are reaching a threshold and that specific support is needed to keep them functioning.”
This was reflected in the survey when asked what strengths their community showed following the bushfires, with generosity and kindness, resilience, and active volunteering seen as the most-needed strengths (Figure 1). The project report also provides a functional assessment of community capabilities and an indicative status of some of these strengths. This provides insight into how they manifest in communities and helps to identify what is most important and why.
Challenges and needs
While the length and severity of the bushfires meant that some communities were exhausted before recovery even started, COVID-19 was named by research participants as the main challenge since the bushfires, followed by damage to the environment, anxiety, and overall fatigue (Figure 2).
COVID-19 restrictions were felt to have exacerbated pre-existing issues and vulnerabilities within communities and amplified the impacts of the bushfires in directly and indirectly-affected communities, increasing and compounding trauma. The research found that the restrictions in place to reduce the spread of the pandemic resulted in communities becoming more isolated, and adversely impacted their ability to provide care and community connectivity. Conversely, where people had the resources and ability to adapt, it had built strengths in areas such as the growth of online networks, communication and resilience.
There were also challenges associated with program delivery, which negatively impacted some communities’ capabilities. These issues primarily stemmed from a lack of knowledge, and limited inclusion by government, areas of emergency management and some support agencies in areas of the planning process. Low awareness of the specific nature of these communities, how to engage with them, and the diversity of subgroups within them were additional factors.
“The social structures within each community are different and incredibly important to understand,” said Ms Young, “because that shapes how they communicate and want to be communicated with.”
Study participants emphasised the importance of feeling their concerns and needs had been heard, acknowledged, and would be acted upon. The people communicating, and levels of trust were found to determine how information was received and heard by different communities.
“This reinforces the need to build and maintain trust over the longer term with communities when they are under duress,” Ms Young explained.
“The type of communication required goes beyond standard approaches, and skills need to be built in this area with those who work in these communities.”
The survey also provided insight into the significant differences in how culturally diverse people view their communities, the information they receive, and from whom they prefer to receive it. This reinforces the importance of having an improved understanding of the similarities and differences between communities and their diverse demographics, including their social, physical and cultural nuances. The study participants also emphasised that communities want to communicate with state and local government and see this as important.
Meeting the challenge
The study found that the overarching context of recovery at the community scale was complex and fragmented. The place-based, context-specific nature of recovery, and the lack of clarity around the role of the community in the recovery process, further complicated this issue. There are also opportunities to leverage these capabilities, particularly using local knowledge to strengthen management of natural hazard risk.
“Looking at the bigger picture across the region can help identify who’s got what capabilities and how they might work together,” said Ms Young.
“Clarifying the points where the baton changes between the government and communities in terms of decision making and responsibilities is important.”
Ms Young explained that the results of this research highlight that recovery is a “non-linear” process.
“Recovery is systems-based,” she said. “People recover in response to what is around them; the community, the natural environment, the economy, other individuals—it’s all linked.
“This means that the process itself is not simply a matter of moving from Point A to Point B because the interactions between the different parts in the system determine how recovery plays out—you need to have flexibility in support structures to accommodate this.”
Recovery from future disasters therefore should consider the impact of increasingly dynamic events on communities and the point at which their ability to recover may be exceeded, so that this risk can be managed.
“The most important takeback from this project is that community capabilities are an untapped resource,” said Ms Young.
“We need to develop a baseline of what community strengths and capabilities exist using bottom-up community assessments to determine what is needed for their recoveries, why it is needed and how this can be best achieved.”
There is a critical need to continue to build data and knowledge of community capabilities to support resilient community recovery, and ensure that targeted policy making and programs are in place to support capability, prior to events occurring.
As a starting point for recovery, community strength and capability can help to provide a constructive focus for conversations between communities, emergency services and government regarding the priorities after a disaster and what can realistically be achieved. More importantly, listening to these communities offers an opportunity to learn from their experiences and to support the development of community-led practical pathways that aid recovery and build resilience.
Read the full findings of this research in the ‘Growing the seeds: recovery, strength and capability in Gippsland communities’ report.