North Coast NSW’s disaster response supports communities through bushfires

  • Smoke from bushfire
North Coast Primary Health Network
Mike Hely, Content Marketing & PR Coordinator (MRC), Healthy North Coast

The recent bushfire crisis in Australia has triggered a coordinated regional response that is still underway. 

Northern NSW was one of the first regions to be affected. The bushfires hit the Richmond Valley west of Casino and the areas around Drake, Tabulam and Woodenbong east of Tenterfield in September 2019. Over the following months new fires were being reported along the coast and inland.

The fires tragically claimed several lives and destroyed multiple dwellings.

Healthy North Coast (HNC), a local organisation that delivers the Australian Government’s Primary Health Network (PHN) program on the North Coast, recognised early the need to coordinate efforts with their health system partners.

HNC Chief Executive Julie Sturgess said her organisation worked with the Northern NSW and Mid North Coast Local Health Districts (LHDs) to establish a health response framework.

“Partnerships are key during times of crisis. Our close relationships with our LHDs helped us to coordinate efforts across health services. But it goes beyond the health sector,” Ms Sturgess said.

“Now more than ever, it is well recognised that a person’s health and wellbeing is impacted by their social situation. During the bushfires, people were worried about accommodation and supplies, feed for their stock and lost fencing.

“Our regional coordination brought us together as health partners, but, importantly, we were part of the broader response discussions. We worked closely with local councils, social services, and non-government organisations. This collective approach helped everyone involved to truly understand the immediate needs of our community and to match efforts accordingly,” Ms Sturgess said. 

HNC’s Executive Director Mental Health & Alcohol and Other Drugs Glen James said that mental health nurses, psychologists and social workers were supported by HNC to deliver a range of mental health trauma support services.

“Mental health professionals attended evacuation centres, provided extra counselling sessions and delivered assertive outreach across the region,” she said. “We also provided information and support for people to access other health services.”

HNC worked with general practices to set up an online service directory with opening hour changes. Funding was offered to those practices able to stay open for extended hours. Some practices also took the initiative to notify at-risk patients on days when air quality was particularly poor.

“Having the support of the local workforce and seeing their willingness to jump in and help was critical – people were volunteering their time, agreeing to work extra hours and offering other support,” Ms James said. 

One of the challenges facing HNC was the unprecedented nature and scale of the bushfires. As in most affected areas, the fires followed a long period of drought and unseasonably hot weather. 

“In some parts of Australia bushfires are almost a way of life, but that is not so on the North Coast,” Ms James said. “We’re used to floods and cyclones, but no one has experienced bushfires of this depth and intensity here. We had rainforests burn that haven’t burned in thousands of years.”

“We’re now into the next phase of recovery. Two or three months after the event is when people start to experience grief, anger and anxiety. We know that this can be a long journey – we want to be directed by our communities about what they need and will design supports accordingly.” 

Recent Australian Government funding will enable HNC and their local health district partners to provide a comprehensive and coordinated approach to recovery. Additionally, the Government is providing grants to PHNs to enable affected communities to develop their own resilience activities. 

Right now, HNC is supporting its funded mental health services to respond to the mental health recovery needs, including providing trauma debriefing and recovery training to a range of organisations, businesses and community groups.

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