Disaster waste management case study: 2009 Victorian bushfires, Australia

Charlotte Brown, Mark Milke, Erica Seville

Resilient Organisations Research Report 2010/04

Executive Summary

The 2009 Black Saturday Bushfires in Victoria, Australia killed 173 people and affected 430,000 hectares of land. Before communities could begin to rebuild the tonnes of burnt and potentially hazardous debris had to be removed. This report reviews the overall waste management process following the bushfires. In particular the report focuses on the State and Commonwealth sponsored demolition and debris removal contract. Data for the analysis is based on a literature review and interviews with professionals and community members involved with or affected by the bushfire waste.

Overall the demolition and debris removal response to the Bushfires was successful. The government sponsored clean-up was hailed as the best post-bushfire government initiative. Aspects of the clean-up programme such as the opportunity to salvage personal items before demolition were highly successful. Although there had been little prior planning for how to deal with disaster waste on this scale, there was a collective response to move with urgency towards a common goal: to remove public health hazards and to get communities into the rebuilding process as quickly as possible.

To meet this goal, five key decisions were made:

  • Establishment of VBRRA.
  • Single waste classification for waste handling procedures.
  • Decision for government to fund the demolition and debris removal on private
  • Letting a single contract for the above works.
  • Construction of a new landfill cell.

For each decision, decision makers needed to balance the environmental, economic and social drivers to meet the above goal. For example a decision was made to stream-line standard peace-time processes such as asbestos handling and disposal in order to remove the hazard quickly and facilitate the rebuild. With limited time to assess possible impacts and outcomes for decisions there was inevitably an elevated risk due to uncertainty associated with the decision-making. The legal frameworks used to meet the debris and demolition requirements were simple and effective. The organisational structures in this event were unplanned for but collaborative and efficient. The major deficiency identified was the lack of ‘peace-time’ solid waste managers involved in the decision-making process on the waste management strategy. The reactive response to the Bushfire clean-up was largely successful, however, the response would have benefited from greater prior planning. Planning is necessary to give decision-makers the tools and information necessary to make good decisions after any given event. Flexible organisational, legal and financial frameworks and suitable impact assessment techniques are essential. For example pre-determining the extent of public financial assistance to the public, relative to disaster impact, and providing prosecution protection for decision- makers, would help to reduce pressure on decision-makers at the time of the disaster. With these in place, decisions can be made more efficiently and in a well coordinated and consultative manner. Many of the delays in the Bushfire response could have been avoided if pre-event planning, focussed around anticipated decision points, had been carried out. Communication at all levels is the key component of this entire process. It is hoped that those involved in waste management and other disaster responses take the lessons learned here and develop effective plans and strategies for responses in the future.

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