Hazelwood: 1000 days on

WEB_Hazelwood fires

From the smoke, ashes, confusion and fear that billowed around the community of Morwell amid the Hazelwood Mine fires in February 2014, a more resilient community has emerged, connected by a common bond and a desire to be heard.
JANE ANDERSON explains.

The Hazelwood coal mine fires had an enormous impact on the Latrobe Valley community, and Morwell in particular, with relentless days of pluming smoke and ash causing people emotional and financial stress.

Many people suffered physically, complaining of sore eyes, throats and headaches. Communication was slow and confusing, and at times misleading. People were concerned about the immediate and long-term impacts on their health, and there was uncertainty as to when the fires would actually be put out.

However, 1000 days on, through tackling these problems, here in Morwell we are seeing a community strengthened through a combination of local leadership, interaction and government focus.

In response to the need for information and the lack of empathy the community felt they received, the local police, CFA, emergency service groups and community organisations started playing key roles establishing communication networks. Community meetings were held, health check points set up, and the Gippsland Fires Facebook page was created. The Social and Community Recovery Subcommittee was established by local government and community organisations to provide people with the information, support and services they needed.

The Victorian government announced an independent inquiry into the circumstances of the Hazelwood Mine fires, including the emergency response and support provided to Morwell residents and other affected communities. The Gippsland Community Legal Service, together with Environmental Justice Australia, ran sessions to help community members participate in the Inquiry.

A group of local people started backing Latrobe Valley residents and the Voices of the Valley group formed. It has advocated for safety upgrades at the Hazelwood Mine, the need to listen to local voices, and an investigation into possible deaths as a result of the mine fire.

 

Morwell residents have turned vacant lots into beautiful fields through the Reactivate Latrobe Valley 'Get Sunflowered' project.

Morwell residents have turned vacant lots into beautiful fields through the Reactivate Latrobe Valley ‘Get Sunflowered’ project.

Since the fire there seems to be a sense of coming together as a community through this common bond.

Several organisations, with the assistance of funding grants, arranged and promoted activities, including counselling to support the community. A range of community activities were organised to help people interact and develop a sense of togetherness.

The ‘Get Sunflowered’ project, run by Reactivate Latrobe Valley, is an innovative way to help disconnected groups engage, using old, ugly, industrial vacant lots and turning them into fields of sunflowers.

It has been a great success and has brought community members together, creating lots of conversation, and smiles.

Walking through the Morwell retail area, an increased liveliness and revitalisation is evident. One road has been temporarily closed to provide the ‘Tarwin Pop Up Park’, a community space with seating, greenery and fun activities. It gives people a place to gather, socialise and be active.

The Tarwin Pop Up Park in Morwell is a great place for people to gather, socialise and be active, as well as hosting many popular live performances.

The Tarwin Pop Up Park in Morwell is a great place for people to gather, socialise and be active, as well as hosting many popular live performances.

The Hazelwood Health Study has been set up and community wellbeing research is being conducted by Federation University Australia’s Centre of Research for Resilient Communities (CoRRC), in collaboration with researchers from the Monash School of Rural Health.

They are currently running the adult survey on the effects of the fire, providing a free coffee or tea and muffin along with a $20 gift voucher for those who participate.

Since the fire there seems to be a sense of coming together as a community through this common bond.

Through the support of working groups established by local government and community organisations, community strength and leadership is building throughout the Latrobe Valley. The Voices of the Valley has an elected committee and its purpose includes protecting and informing the community. Its objectives include data collection and dissemination, advocacy, and connecting community groups and government bodies. Community members have gained the strength and skills they need to nominate themselves as candidates for all levels of government elections.

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Since the fire there seems to be a sense of coming together as a community through this common bond.

The people of Morwell, and surrounding communities, experienced a disastrous event in February 2014, the effects of which were exacerbated by a sense of isolation, mistrust and of not being heard. But by speaking out strongly they made sure the disaster’s impacts and potential effects on the community’s health were finally acknowledged. Being heard and acknowledged has supported the community in its recovery.

From the smoke and ashes of the coal mine fires, a more resilient community has emerged, evident through its greater levels of interaction, connection and local leadership.

Top image: Sascha Grant/CC

 

 

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