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What defending my home during Tasmania's bushfires taught me about disaster reporting

By James Dunlevie, Tuesday February 19, 2019 - 20:10 EDT
ABC image
The glow of fires near Glen Huon as seen from my house. - ABC

When a bushfire emergency warning was issued for Glen Huon and nearby areas in late January, I was in the ABC's Hobart newsroom — but not for long.

The fire, one of many that had expanded over several weeks across Tasmania, was now threatening residences near where I lived, in the south-east of the state.



I was not going to make the same mistake I did in 2011, when my home came under a different kind of threat.

Working for ABC Darwin as a digital producer, I'd been covering the developing cyclone when floodwaters began to rise near my house in February of that year.

Closely monitoring the weather bureau's forecast path of the huge rain storm building over land south of Darwin, focused on updating the digital story and trapped in the incessant social media chatter, I brushed off my wife's telephone calls and SMSs telling me of her growing concern about Rapid Creek, which was swelling and lapping at the road near our home.

It comes up every wet season. It'll be fine, I told her several times, before turning back to the flurry of activity which happens in a newsroom during major events.

I was wrong.

I was staring at a computer in the Darwin ABC office as water surprised my wife in the hallway of our house in Millner, books and furniture bobbing in the ankle-deep muck.
Pregnant with our second child, Jade somehow loaded our toddler daughter and dog into a car, managing to grab a few things before driving to higher ground.

Eventually I got the message, leaving the office to do what I could, far too late. So entranced by the news event unfolding, so intoxicated by the activity in the newsroom, I felt like I had failed my own family.



So, a few weeks ago, when the Tasmania Fire Service upgraded the alert level for the towns near where I now live, I bolted.

"Burning embers falling on Glen Huon will threaten your home before the main fire," the alert read.

"Smoke and ash will make it difficult to see and breathe."



I had an ABC bushfire kit, which I had planned on using if I was deployed to the areas south of my home — places like Geeveston, Castle Forbes Bay and Franklin, which were under siege from the same fire that had taken a turn and was now less than 10 kilometres from us.

Now, I was thinking whether I'd have to pull the gear on to help me defend of my own place, an old timber house not far from the forest fringe.

I had been to the local evacuation centre and walked past the news crews excluded on the grounds of preserving people's privacy.

As a resident I was allowed in and I sat on the floor of the Huonville Police Youth Club and listened as a veteran firefighter told the crowd straight that if the fire did come through and they were not ready "make no mistake, it will get ugly".

The frankness surprised me.

So often the words from official sources are much more measured — these drew audible gasps from many in the evacuation centre.

As I took in the advice from fire authorities, police and others, I grappled with the idea that media was outside in the car park, while I — a reporter, but also a local resident — was privy to what was being said inside, the images of the fires pinned up on a display board.



I reasoned that if the privacy of residents was the council's reason for keeping cameras out, I'd honour that.

But I also knew that the information that was being conveyed to the media via official channels was by and large a generic warning.

All around me in the meeting people were taking photos, posting to social media, getting the message out.

I did the same, careful not to show individual faces.

Later on, the community fire briefings would be opened up to ABC cameras, a sensible decision.

After the meeting ended, I approached a fire official who asked if, as a resident, I was planning to stay and defend.

I told him yes, that I was as ready as I could be.

In truth, I was woefully underprepared.

"I have spoken to many who have done that successfully in the past, during fires in which they saved their homes," he said, pausing for effect, making sure to get eye contact with me.
"None of them would do it again."

When the flames jumped the hill up the road from us, I managed to convince my wife it was time to go but it was almost as if the Darwin experience had toughened her and she seemed prepared to stick it out much longer than me.


I was on edge, not sleeping, and now, with the fire predicted to march towards us, I was wired.
I drove around, partly to see where this fire was, had it burned the homes of any of our new friends?

I was doing what they warn against, being a bloody tourist.

I tweeted photos of the places my colleagues were reporting on but could not access because of the "residents only" roadblocks in place.

At the height of it all, stopping every so often to wander outside and check for smoke or embers.

In the end, we escaped, the fire slowed due to better weather and the heroic efforts of firefighters.

As of writing this, fires are still burning, the threat not completely over for many, despite the news machine turning its attention elsewhere.

Being on the "inside", I was privileged to witness the best kind of human behaviour — the kindness of strangers, the gentle way people can be with each other when they are tested, the welcome sight of elected officials rising to the challenge.



As a new Tasmanian in the path of the fire, the experience has taught me a lot personally and professionally; reminding me yet again to keep the audience at the front of what I do and to always consider what questions are people asking and are we answering them?

Questions such as: What is really happening on the ground? Has the danger passed? Can I take pets to the evacuation centre?

This is what I and people I know have wanted answers on at various times during the bushfires.

Bushfires, cyclones, floods and — I can only imagine, other disasters like earthquakes — result in people desperate for a trusted source of information.

This is especially important as many turn to social media for information and much of it is incorrect.

Several of my friends have told me of being alarmed at the rampant speculation on Facebook about the bushfires in the south of Tasmania, on community pages normally devoted to gardening advice and bickering over council matters.

Despite the animosity that can occasionally be directed the ABC's way, I can happily report from on the ground that many thank their lucky stars for the public broadcaster and its commitment to its role in times of emergency.


- ABC

© ABC 2019

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