COVID-safe bushfire evacuations: how two crises collide

COVID-19 measures now part of bushfire response planning

Bushfires
National Bushfire Recovery Agency head Andrew Colvin. Picture: Jamila Toderas

National Bushfire Recovery Agency head Andrew Colvin. Picture: Jamila Toderas

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The pandemic has affected the bushfire recovery, but it will also affect how evacuations take place.

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Australia's bushfire recovery agency is planning for how evacuations and other immediate help for people affected by bushfires can be done safely with COVID-19 considerations for future fires.

This month marks a year since the start of the last bushfire season in NSW, with the horrific summer fires that claimed 33 lives across the country now referred to as the Black Summer fires.

In many towns people were crowded into evacuation centres to escape flames, something that poses a challenge when Australians will be expected to observe social distancing to stop the spread of COVID-19 until a vaccine is found.

"That's been part of the conversation, there's a lot of planning going on for how we respond and how we provide immediate relief," National Bushfire Recovery Agency head Andrew Colvin said on Monday.

"Recently we've had a few experiences with this already from some of the flooding events where they had to have evacuation centres in a COVID-safe manner and they did have."

Mr Colvin said his agency, emergency services agencies, local councils and state governments were all incorporating measures into their emergency planning aimed at preventing the spread of COVID-19.

"If we see a summer like we did last year, or a disaster like we did last year, that's going to test our ability," he said.

The COVID-19 pandemic had affected bushfire recovery and assistance efforts since March, but its effects shouldn't be "overstated," Mr Colvin said.

"It took a little while to find COVID-safe ways to do things," he said, but added overall it hadn't been a major barrier to giving assistance.

The pandemic had had an impact on the economic recovery of towns affected by the fires, Mr Colvin said, and had meant plans for international tourism campaigns to bushfire-affected regions needed to be changed.

A snapshot in March found the economic impact was $3.2 billion across agriculture, forestry and tourism, but Mr Colvin said "you could only imagine now what that would be, far far greater than that".

"It's almost impossible for us to disaggregate what is a COVID impact, what is a bushfire impact; we just know these communities are doing it tough."

The story COVID-safe bushfire evacuations: how two crises collide first appeared on The Canberra Times.

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