Next 12 months critical: Wagga MP

Dr Joe McGirr surveys the devastating scene at Batlow, the day after the fire swept through the town.

Hope and determination; those are the words that Wagga Wagga MP Dr Joe McGirr uses when discussing bushfire-affected communities across his electorate as the one year anniversary of the Dunns Road fire arrives.

“I think in the worst affected parts people are, well, they’re exhausted, because they’ve had a year of fires and then they’ve had on top of that of course Covid, and certainly they’ve now had to struggle with applying for grants,” he said.

“There’s a sense of exhaustion, but can I also say, I think there is a sense of hope and a sense that we can turn this around a bit and that for some communities, there might be some good opportunities in the funding that’s coming out.

“I think there’s a real determination in communities that they’re not going to let this get them and they’re going to make the most of this.”

Acknowledging the very-real anxieties persisting in fire-affected regions, particularly around the orchard and forestry industries and the long-term impacts they face, Dr McGirr said he has been personally inspired by the ability of communities to come together and forge a pathway to recovery and renewal.

“There’s an ongoing concern for each other and for checking on each other, making sure that we look after each other, and that’s been really inspiring,” he said.

“The determination, the hope, the hard work, the way communities have been looking after each other has been very inspiring this year, and I think it means we’ve got a good future; there could be some good opportunities that come out of this.”

Throughout the year there has been a number of bushfire recovery grants announced by the government for individuals and community organisations alike. While the fires were still raging in early January, Prime Minister Scott Morrison announced a $2 billion bushfire recovery fund to be allocated to a range of sectors and interests.

Questions have been raised as to whether this money is hitting the ground, and Dr McGirr said that from the feedback he has received, it is.

“I’ve spoken to a number of farmers throughout the region and businesses who’ve clearly been able to access funds and for whom it’s been a support,” he said.

The Wagga MP acknowledged that this support is ongoing, with more industry grants set to roll out in the new year such as the Bushfire community recovery and resilience fund, and the Local Economic Recovery Fund.

“That money is yet to flow into the economies, but I’m hopeful that over the next six months that money will flow.

“Has the process been perfect? No. But has support reached people? I think by and large the feedback that I’ve got is that it has, and that’s been good.”

Despite funds hitting the ground, Dr McGirr remains critical of the application process and said he plans to take it up with the government and Resilience NSW.

“The application process for funding for community organisations, the feedback that I’ve had is that it’s been very complicated and certainly what I’ve seen, it was very complicated,” he said.

“Resilience NSW have been very good and I think they tried to provide some support for community members which was great, I do want to acknowledge that, but I have had feedback that it was a complicated process.”

In terms of the recovery process, Dr McGirr said that tree clearing on roads remains a concern and should have been handled better. He also said that people are concerned about the lack of access to the western shore of Blowering Dam and sites controlled by Forestry.

“There’s ongoing concern about that and that’s an issue that I’m taking up with the deputy premier, to see if we can’t get access at least in some part to what were traditional camping grounds on that western foreshore of Blowering,” he said.

Throughout the year, Laing O’Rourke workers became familiar faces around towns such as Batlow, contracted by the government to clear damaged and destroyed properties. In total, they cleared 300 properties across the Snowy Valleys LGA. Dr McGirr said he has received positive feedback about this process.

“That only happened at the middle of the year, but I did get a lot of positive feedback about the way that was undertaken,” he said.

“I think people were really appreciative of the use of local firms [and] they were also appreciative of the communication and… of the professionalism of the people involved, and the sensitivity.”

Looking towards 2021, Dr McGirr believes that “the next twelve months are critical.”

“If we can build on the determination and hard work and optimism that’s evident now, and we can get the grants and get those grants rolled out and that infrastructure improved, then I think we’ll come out of this well,” he said.

His priority for 2021 is to make sure people are supported to rebuild.

“They’ll pull themselves back up, we’ve just got to give them a hand; we’ve got to make sure that happens,” he said.

“[The] government’s made a good start on it, but we’ve got to make sure they keep delivering on that.”

He also wants bushfire-affected communities to reach out for help if they are struggling throughout the anniversary of the bushfires.

“The anniversary, of course, will bring back memories to people, so I just want to make sure that people know that they should be able to reach out, look out for each other, and reach out about not feeling okay.”