Sanitising fire trucks: How the COVID-19 pandemic will change this bushfire season

As the Black Summer bushfires ravaged more than 100 local government areas, residents forced to flee their homes huddled together in nearby evacuation centres.

Some, like the Bega evacuation centre in New South Wales, were packed with people for several days, as the fires blocked roads in and out of the town.

But this bushfire season will be different.

The COVID-19 pandemic means those who have lost their homes or who are in danger will not be able to shelter side by side in evacuation centres or hug volunteers for comfort.

“We’ve all visited recovery centres in the past, it’s often a lot of people in a confined space — we need to find new ways of doing that,” National Bushfire Recovery Agency coordinator Andrew Colvin said.

“We don’t know what disasters may befall the country in the coming season, but we know we have to prepare for every scenario.”

A deadly pandemic and the killer threat of bushfires means firefighters will be battling on multiple fronts.

NSW Rural Fire Service spokesman James Morris said, if required, evacuation centres would continue to operate this season where possible — albeit differently.

“We may not see any large-scale fires into the New Year, where we may see a significant ease in these restrictions, so we are continuing to work with the Government and agencies like Resilience NSW to monitor and make sure if we need to open evacuation centres and the like, they’re done in that COVID-safe environment.

“And we continue to do what we can to reduce the mass gatherings that occur in these style of evacuations.”

Dorrigo evacuation centre
People will be temperature checked before being allowed to enter evacuation centres, if needed, this bushfire season.(Supplied: Kymbalee Tarran)

Mr Morris said in the event of a bushfire emergency, the location of any evacuation centres would depend on whether they were within a coronavirus hotspot, and affected residents would be encouraged to register at the centre before moving on to a hotel or relative’s home to try to limit the number of people inside.

There would also be temperature testing at the door, and people’s names and numbers would be recorded.

Changes have already been made to protect firefighters, and they will continue in the event of another disastrous bushfire season.

There are currently limits on the number of people allowed inside fire trucks to ensure emergency personnel are physically distancing.

Vehicles will also be decontaminated after each use.

“We’ll continue to follow restrictions as much as need be, firefighters are still undertaking training, they’re still attending callout, so there’s no issue in regards to that protection that we maintain with our communities,” Mr Morris said.

Mr Colvin said a season like last summer would be even more testing in the midst of a pandemic.

“I don’t want to get ahead of what our counterparts in states and local governments are putting in place, suffice to say they’re putting a lot of plans [in place] and they’re thinking this issue through,” he said.

Pandemic affects recovery efforts

The pandemic has also hindered some recovery efforts, forcing the National Bushfire Recovery Agency to shift its focus away from tourism as a solution.

The combined impact of COVID-19 and the bushfires has left Australia’s tourism industry reeling, with jobs in the sector falling by 3 per cent in the year to March.

“If you were talking to me in January, February this year, I would have been talking to you a lot about tourism and about the need to try to get tourists back into some of these worst fire-impacted or fire-hit communities,” he said.

“Clearly we have to do that in a COVID-safe way now.

“While we are seeing people start to move around the country in a limited sense, and that is helping some of these bushfire-affected communities recover, our plans that we had for tourism to be a big part of the recovery need to slow down a bit.”

National Bushfire Recovery Agency Co-ordinator, Andrew Colvin
National Bushfire Recovery Agency co-ordinator, Andrew Colvin, says the cost of recovery efforts will exceed $2 billion.(ABC News: Shaun Kingma)

Mr Colvin said the combined cost of COVID-19 and the Black Summer bushfires on the agriculture, forestry and tourism industries would not be known for five to 10 years.

The Federal Government promised an initial $2 billion for a national bushfire recovery fund as part of its response to the bushfire crisis, vowing more money would be made available if required.

In total, the Commonwealth has so far spent $1.8 billion and promised even more.

Mr Colvin said while he could not put a dollar figure on the total recovery efforts, it would be in excess of $2 billion.