Clean-up is the biggest challenge now in the Nambucca Valley

BACK IN NOVEMBER: NSW Recovery Coordinator Euan Fergusan and assistant Ronnie Faggotter talk to Taylors Arm evacuee Jan Roberton
BACK IN NOVEMBER: NSW Recovery Coordinator Euan Fergusan and assistant Ronnie Faggotter talk to Taylors Arm evacuee Jan Roberton

Euan Ferguson first visited the Nambucca Valley back in November as the newly-appointed NSW Bushfire Recovery Coordinator.

Within days of our devastating fires he was on the ground at Macksville Showground talking, listening and gathering the first trickles of information from traumatised residents, whose homes and livelihoods had been (potentially) destroyed.

His role was to oversee the response to the impact of what was already a bushfire emergency ... as it still is, only now the recovery he is overseeing stretches from the Queensland border all the way to the South Coast taking in the ravaged areas of the Blue Mountains, Central Coast, the Hunter Valley ... an almost incomprehensible amount of charred landscapes and lives.

With different areas at different points along the recovery road, the Guardian News grabbedsome time out of Mr Ferguson's busy schedule to find out how things are looking locally ...

"The community, the community organisations and this community's leaders have done an amazing job, they, together with National Parks and State Forests crews, have put out the fires," Mr Ferguson said.

... and now we have the challenge of the clean-up - it is definitely the biggest issue at the moment

Euan Ferguson, Recovery Coordinator

It is a challenge Mr Ferguson says cannot be underestimated.

"There is a lot of debris to be removed, in many cases there is asbestos and other such materials that have to be removed and disposed of safely (which requires qualified tradespeople).

"In December the NSW Government put $25 million towards the clean-up, to cover those who are uninsured directly, or via insurance companies for those who are ... this has thrown up some problems and we are looking at how we can improve this to make it as quick and easy as possible.

"We are constantly monitoring things and changing them if we need to. We have a number of different recovery committees - there is the one for the elected representatives with weekly teleconferencing; there is a general managers forum that is mostly operational and also weekly plus I meet with the mayors one-on-one."

Other ongoing issues are water, stock fodder and fences.

"Local Land Services were able to offer immediate relief but that was not ongoing. Since sale yards re-opened after Christmas many have decided to put their stock up for sale.

"More rain, more water is what we really need ... but down at Kempsey, for example, they were rejoicing the rain and now this fish kill problem has occurred."

There are a lot of things, new problems, unexpected ramifications, that keep popping up.

Mr Ferguson is full of praise for the "sterling efforts" of BlazeAid and expressed his appreciation in the highest terms "but the size of the task is huge."

"Between here and Sydney there are about 26,000km of fencing that has been destroyed or damaged.

"We are in discussions now about how we can deal with all this ... and one potential route is to use the ADF (Australian Defence Forces). They could help with debris removal such as sheds and outbuildings, clearing fence lines and also public facilities, to get them back and working and open for recreational use again ... in some shires reopening tracks in National Parks is key to the local economy."

The need to find a common approach to building approvals is also on his list: "These need to be consistent. We have a strong resolve to see that buildings meet bushfire construction guidelines, including temporary buildings solutions."

And then there is the very important question of mental health, or as Mr Ferguson says, "support for mental health and emotional well-being".

"Often people find they just don't feel quite right. This is not mental illness but it is something to monitor.

I want to reinforce the importance of getting the family unit together, having barbeques with neighbours - that social support is really important.

Euan Ferguson, Recovery Coordinator

"People need to tap into their normal social supports, friends, family, work mates ... and if they are still feeling funny, then they should seek help.

"The Mental Health Hotline is 1800 011 511 ... and if people give their location they can be directed to local providers."

He said recent mental health funding announced was aimed at boosting the number of accessible clinicians.

"People need to re-assimilate into the community. If you are a member of a local club or volunteer group, then think about getting back there, among your friends."

The Mental Health Hotline is 1800 011 511

When asked about a timeline to recovery, Mr Ferguson said it always takes longer than expected.

"I estimate it will take until June to get 80 per cent of the area down to the Sydney Basin cleared off but it is more likely we will be allocating heavy machinery for seven or eight months.

"Some people may be rebuilding within 12 months, for many it will be two-three years, especially with the need to design and build to meet all the standards.

"I oversaw the recovery effort after the 2018 Tathra fires and a number of those affected are yet to rebuild."

For now the focus however is absolutely on "bringing back some sort of normality - we need to make sure the kids can go back to school and we need to get the fabric of this society up and running again."

* Euan Ferguson is a forester and fire emergency manager with over 40 years experience in fire and fuels risk management, community engagement and emergency management leadership.

"I come from a natural resource point of view where I see that world we live in as a whole lot a systems, natural and otherwise, all working together."

And watch this space for our mayor, Rhonda Hoban's, view of the recovery.

Also making the news: