Climate Summit for Local Government

Sept 6-8, 2023 | Melbourne
As councils from around Australia met in the Blue Mountains, west of Sydney, to demand action on climate change, fires continued to burn across northern NSW.

Less than a week after 120 buildings were destroyed and dozens more damaged in a spate of bushfires in northern NSW, councillors from around Australia have gathered in the Blue Mountains to discuss the impacts of climate change on bushfire season.

Local councillor and bushfire management officer Tim McNaught was one of the local leaders taking part, travelling from Western Australia for the discussion which will cover how climate change is affecting Australian communities and how local governments can better plan for natural disasters.

“Consistent with what’s happening in a lot of other states in Australia, we’re seeing a warming, drying trend, climate trend,” he told SBS News.

“They’re all being impacted in some way around climate change. Whether it is around more flooding, whether it’s going to be coastal inundation, whether it’s cyclones or whether it’s bushfire.”

The team leader in climate change at Strathbogie Council, Carole Hammond, travelled to the meeting, organised by the Climate Council’s Cities Power Partnership, from Victoria after 200 fires burned across her region last month, with the aftermath continuing to take a toll on her community’s mental health.

“We’ve seen a big rise in anguish and mental stress throughout the community,” she said.

Ms Hammond said being a part of these meetings is important in changing the future – for not only Strathbogie, but all bushfire-prone communities around Australia. Tasmania’s Huon Valley Council also took part, just weeks after fires destroyed several homes in their region.

The meeting of 65 local and state government representatives, academics and community groups took place in Katoomba, west of Sydney, more than five years after the 2013 Blue Mountain fires which destroyed almost 200 homes.

Blue Mountains resident Lyn Trindall said she still sees flames approaching her home when she looks out her window.

“I looked to my right and the fire was down on what we call the embankment. And it used to be really bushy, it was all red,” she told SBS News. “The fire was coming to get us.”

The fires were considered the worst in NSW for 50 years, but Ms Trindall was one of the lucky ones – her home survived the inferno.

Former NSW Fire Commissioner Greg Mullins was another person at the meeting who had first-hand experience with the 2013 blaze. He said it was during the Blue Mountains fires, which he was in charge of, that he realised how unpredictable and vicious Australian bushfires were becoming.

“That fire was in October, early October. Every other major bushfire in the Blue Mountains going back to the 1940s were between November and January, and it was the most destructive fire in the history of the Blue Mountains,” he said.

“If that doesn’t tell people something, then nothing will.”

Mr Mullins is also part of a group called Bushfire Survivors For Climate Action, which is calling on the Australian government to take action to prevent future fires.

“That’s what I fear, that we’re going to see more and more serious bushfires, more homes lost and, sadly, people losing their lives,” he said.

“So it does require action from all levels of government to mitigate the risk, to adapt, but also at the highest levels of government, to actually tackle climate change.”

In a statement to SBS News, the Department of Environment and Energy acknowledged an increase in extreme fire weather and fire season length across parts of Australia.

It said the Bureau of Meteorology (BoM) and the CSIRO are monitoring the changes.

“Our research has shown that these trends are attributable at least in part to human-caused climate change from greenhouse gas emissions, including due to increased temperatures,” senior research scientist at the BoM Dr Andrew Dowdy told SBS News last week.

Australia has just experienced its warmest January ever on record, which saw Tasmania and Victoria devastated by bushfires. In northern NSW, fire crews have gained an upper hand on the blazes but forecasts for strong winds and hot conditions mean total fire bans have been reinstated for Wednesday, covering the Northern Slopes and North Western areas.

A blaze at Wallangarra flared up on Tuesday prompting a watch-and-act alert to be issued, although the fire was subsequently downgraded to advice level.