Kinglake residents came out of the fire and into a plan – it just wasn’t theirs.
LAST Sunday, over seventy people gathered in the renovated, rebuilt hall at Kinglake Central. David Engwicht, a placemaking expert, told the audience that the fire was an opportunity “to burn the triviality” from their lives. They could create community, relationships and “systemic resilience”, however they wanted.
It was the first week of a free, two-part event called Regenerating, sponsored by RMIT University, Australian National University and CSIRO.
The speakers – under the themes of people, place, prosperity and preparedness – covered an extraordinary range of disciplines, from firestorm physics and vulnerable ecosystems, to regional economies and social media.
The event was organised by Daryl Taylor, from the Kinglake Ranges Community Resilience Committee. He says a common thread emerged: the need for communities to take back control of decision-making. And that’s a lesson relevant for citizens elsewhere, with many towns and suburbs facing uncertain futures.
The latest report by the Climate Commission, The Critical Decade: Extreme Weather, stated that climate change is already increasing the intensity and frequency of heatwaves, droughts, storms and sea-level rise. “The southeast of Australia, including many of our largest population centres, stands out as being at increased risk,” it said.
In Kinglake, Mr Engwicht said no one could be sure which challenges will come first. Planning only for specific threats can, counter-intuitively, make you more vulnerable to unexpected ones.
The second day of the event will be held on Sunday May 5. The speakers include historian Bill Gammage, author of The Biggest Estate on Earth: How Aborigines Made Australia, and psychiatrist Paul Valent, author of From Survival to Fulfillment.
Mr Taylor says that, in organising the event, the committee members were motivated by their experiences since the fires – especially the contradiction between locals’ willingness and capacity to act, and the stifling nature of the assistance they received.
“A disaster is a tragedy, but also an opportunity to regenerate, to rethink and redesign. We lost unique opportunities because state government, corporations and NGOs had pre-determined agendas and one-size-fits-all strategies,” he says. “‘Engagement’ was too often about engaging with someone else’s prefigured plan.
“Our communities were incredibly creative after the fires. We self-organised to meet our fundamental human and social needs – often without external help, and by flying under the radar. But as we became exhausted, it became difficult to act outside the government matrix.
“People don’t really need welfare and command-and-control directives. They need empowerment. They don’t really need donated undies and toothbrushes. They need to be supported to collaborate and make critical decisions about their communities’ futures.
If he could, he’d bypass the idea of “recovery” altogether. “Recovery can be a dog-whistle for counselling, welfare agencies and dependency. It’s backward looking and doesn’t address what makes communities truly flourish,” he says.
This year, Mr Taylor and his family are renting in Eltham. They’d been living in temporary housing until a few months ago. His daughter can now walk to high school, but it’s been a difficult transition in other ways.
“I’m really feeling the anonymity of the suburbs,” he says. “In Kinglake, when I came home, it was nothing to see several cars at our property and people everywhere. We got through the last four years on the strength of our social relationships – we did everything together.
“The experience has been extraordinary. While you wouldn’t wish it on anyone, it’s been rich with learning.”