In this episode, I’m talking with Emma Ashton and Rachel Lopes, co-producers of the Fire and Rain Conversation Series.
Emma and Rachel are amazing leaders within their community and are great examples of leadership at the local level. I was lucky to be invited on as a guest in the series talking about the Economic Impacts of Bushfires.
There’s so much to learn listening to Emma and Rachel about how they are focused on informing and empowering bushfire communities to live savfely with fire. A great local-level example of thinking differently and doing differently.
A little bit about Emma and Rachel...
Rachel’s an environmental scientist who’s worked in the waterways and catchment management area for over 15 years. She’s interested in systems thinking and the assumptions and perspectives that go into building the systems that we operate within.
She loves the power of storytelling and reimagining the future, and uses these tools when working to create positive change. Rachel has a partner and two gorgeous boys and enjoys getting out into the forest and on the mountain bike trails with them and others when she can.
Emma grew up in the Otways and has family all around the district. Her family had been making a living in the Otways area for almost five generations, from timber milling to agriculture, and more recently in the tourism sector.
This gives her a great reflection on the changes in the economy through the generations. It’s a beautiful part of the world and Emma is very lucky to live close to the bush and sea with her husband and two teenage kids.
I like to start with where we met...
So Emma called me when I was driving back from a visit to East Gippsland after the bushfires at the beginning of 2020 asked me to be part of a Fire and Rain summit they were planning in the local Otways community. For those of you who don’t know, the Otways is a magical place in the southwest part of Victoria. And it was impacted a few years ago by the Wye River bushfires.
Obviously, because of the COVID situation, the summit itself hasn’t been able to happen. What Emma and Rachel have done is turned it into some conversations that are available online and I was privileged to be part of one a few episodes ago. And I won’t share anymore, because we’re going to find out more in this conversation. But Emma and Rachel, thank you so much for your time and for joining me.
Here are some questions I asked...
1. So I’m going to start with my first question. So what is the Fire and Rain Conversation Series? And why was it so important to you both that you had to create it?
Oh, good question. So the Fire and Rain Conversation Series started with an awareness by some of our members in our community who were involved in a climate adaptation project. And we became aware that bushfire events were likely to be more frequent and potentially more devastating. So we started to have a good think as a community about what were some of the things we could do to start preparing for that idea. So we originally planned a conference or a summit in our community in April 2020. And then as the coronavirus started spreading in March, we realized we had to cancel the conference. And we turned it into an online conversation series. So that’s kind of where it started. But we’d already started reaching out to various speakers and you know, thinking about the sort of topics and the issues that we thought were important to bushfire prone communities. Yeah, and that was all about trying to create our own resilience and awareness of these threats going forward.
2. It’s a great series and I’ll put a link on our website. So who’s your audience for it? Is it for your local community? Or have you done it literally for everyone in the world to hear about your beautiful region?
Our audience was primarily the local community of Forest and the surrounding Otway towns but we’re finding the themes are also relevant for any bushfire prone community across Australia. So it’s really for anyone who lives near the bush and is starting to think about these things. Lately we’ve also found we’ve had some government agencies and land managers express interest in it and share it around as kind of a useful conversation. So we’re not sure who our audience is – anyone who wants to listen!
Well, I have to say having been in an episode and being kindly invited to participate in an episode. It’s so lovely to chat with you both and you can sense the real genuine purpose and mission of what you’re trying to create from these conversations, and we’ve spoken before I think about these types of conversations are so important because they can organically seed the issues, positive and negative into multiple stakeholder groups and it can share some of the experiences in your communities as well as bringing in some of the learnings and knowledge from outside your community into your community members too.
3. So apart from my good self, who else have you spoken with in the conversations to date? And then who’s next on your list?
Yeah, we’ve had some really great people willing to be part of our conversation series so far, particularly starting right at the top we had a conversation with Robert Glasser, who was the United Nations Special Representative for disaster risk reduction. So he he’s addressed disasters right across the world. And he gave us his broad perspective on what we’re in for with climate change and the sorts of compounding and cascading issues that will affect us as the planet warms. And in that episode, we also had Justin Leonard from the CSIRO just an amazing technical expert in bushfire behavior but also, you know, he talked to us about how houses burned down, what are the ways that people can be better prepared for bushfires. We spoke with some amazing traditional owners and that’s been our most popular conversation that people have listened to via our YouTube and Spotify channels that people were talking about country and what it means to live in these beautiful landscapes that we live in and what are the totems and what are the various objectives for those areas in which we live, that we can help to be better informed.
And then consider what’s important around us as we live near the bush. We talked to some community members who had lived experience of bushfire and then we followed that up with talking with mental health professionals about those traumatic impacts on people. And then of course the preeminent fire scientist for Australia, Kevin Tolhurst, who was our most recent guest, along with a local guy, Tim Gazzard from the Otways. So we’ve had some really great speakers so far. And we’ve still got the best to come which Rachel and I love talking about, which is talking with some local artists from the Forest community, and our local primary school and the bushfire program they’re running as well as some community resilience and planning experts.
It’s such a broad group of people talking about so many important topics. I love that and I love that you’ve got the kids, I find, you know, in my stakeholder mapping background, they’re often so forgotten yet being stuck in Melbourne homeschooling three small people they have such the most amazing ideas and just getting their learnings and I guess the insights in terms of what’s happening in their local community. So I can’t wait to hear that one as well.
4. Are there any common themes that are coming through in your conversations? And what what are you going to do with those themes? So what comes from the conversations?
Yes, the clear one that’s coming out in a lot of them is about connectedness. That, you know, the fact that we are all connected, everything and everyone on the planet is connected. I think this has come out in nearly all of our conversations, and particularly with the traditional owners. And I guess I personally believe that the sooner that we can deeply and truly understand what this means, the sooner we’re going to solve some of the complex problems we’re facing. Traditional owners have a much better understanding and appreciation of the connectedness of all things. And they were able to sustain themselves on this planet for tens of thousands of years, so we have much to learn from them. Also, I just think, going back to your last question, and the choice of our speakers, I’m a real fan of systems thinking and looking at this topic in its fullness. So appreciating fire in different ways from an art perspective, we have that one coming up. Appreciating the topic really broadly and I think we have in society, we tend to have specialists and they do one thing and that’s that’s their thing. But we don’t have enough people looking at how everything connects. So I think this series is about looking at the whole system and trying to make those connections and help people understand that these topics are really all connected. But who better than the traditional owners to lead that thinking.
Rachel, I’m so glad you said that because I absolutely agree. I think in this space it’s full of a lot of siloed contribution and siloed outputs. And there’s a real lack of I guess, the holistic overview and the holistic thinking around all the stakeholders and all the contributions that they can make into I guess, the outcome that we’re all aspiring to building a resilient and prepared nation for current and future disasters. And I think to have a platform like the Conversation Series where you can really invite lots of different perspectives and all the contributions that these different stakeholders can make. And a bit like why I started the Doing Disasters Differently podcast, you know, I want to learn and I’m learning so much. And I’ve learnt so much from the conversations I’ve had with you both. But if we learn and then take our learnings and do something with them, even if it’s just to change a little thing about how we live each day, or how we do business each day, then that’s going to contribute to a better outcome. I have absolutely no doubt. So the value in your Conversation Series, being inclusive of all those different mindsets and contributions I think is a really positive aspect in terms of what it is.
5. So from your perspective, what’s the value of these conversations? And what change are they going to drive? So we’ve just talked about the fact that I think it’s fantastic bringing all these people together. But are you hopeful that there’ll be specific outcomes from the conversations?
Definately, yes. So we’re hoping listeners gain that deeper understanding that I was talking about, of what it means to be resilient in their community. Specifically around bushfire. But as we were doing this, in the time of a pandemic, as we are doing it, we’re discovering the skills are relevant, you know, to a pandemic, and hence probably any emergency as well. It’s about creating a greater understanding and appreciation of fire broadly, and understanding of the risk that fire poses specifically, as well in the Forest and Otways region over the next 10 years, because we heard that was what we really need. We need to know our own future in the next 10 years. And we had that in our last episode. And then tools and tips to build community resilience, whether it be local businesses, which was the one we did with you, you know, what are some ideas for local businesses in town, how to manage your mental health through emergencies, and the importance of playing an active role in managing the land around you. And being involved in those conversations, as well as actively looking after your own piece of land. And then to connect more deeply with traditional own wisdom. So I guess we’re just hoping to plant some seeds, but then also be quite practical and give people littlle tools and tips to get started in stepping one step forward to help build their resilience.
I’ll just dd to that if I can. For me, I think it’s been about this idea of community led solutions. So we sometimes talk about that the paradigm of having, you know, top down versus bottom up decision making that impacts on community members. And so for me, that’s the change that we’re hoping to drive is that communities can take control of some of that decision making around what’s good for them. They know, they’re the ones living there, they know what interactions there are with emergency services with the local health services, or schools and neighborhood houses and stuff. So they can they’re the ones that can help drive the changes, and the solutions, how that can be done. And I think more and more we’re realizing, especially as we’re working from home, this can be done in a really professional and intelligent way. So community members can step up and hold space in that conversation with agencies and with the various emergency services.
That’s so true. And I often say and particularly in the current communities recovering from bushfires, that there’s nothing more important than community led recovery and community led resilience. And in saying that, a lot of the people who are self elected or formally elected onto those recovery groups in leadership roles, whilst they are amazing leaders and absolutely know the benefit of what are the best interests of their communities, they kind of also sometimes need a little bit help to upskill in terms of capabilities as to how to be a leader or how to lead a strategic recovery process as well. And so conversations like the Fire and Rain Series can really help to upskill and I guess, start building that knowledge gap so that people can understand it more and contribute more. And a point you mentioned before, which I think is quite interesting to share. Rachel, I think you mentioned it, if we prepared for disasters, about 80% of our preparation can be relevant for all types of disasters. So whilst the focus you have, obviously is fire and floods (fire and rain) ultimately, and as you mentioned, the preparedness and the conversations is relevant to pandemics. Yes, there’s that 20% that’s different to specific disasters, but I think the capabilities and the skill sets can actually be quite similar. So while you’re building that level of knowledge sharing and resilience and an understanding, the skills and the learnings are transferable into other disaster types as well.
6. Now you’re quite an active community I have to say. Both of you as leaders in your community. And you shared with me the development of the Forest and Districts Towards 2030 Plan. So can you tell me a bit about what is that? And why has it been created?
So I think as I said, at the start of the interview, we had an opportunity in our community to look at climate adaptation strategies over the next 10 years. And this was another product that came out of that initiative. So we were so fortunate. We’ve had feasibility studies for the last two years where we’ve looked at a range of issues. So from agricultural solutions to being prepared for bushfires, and also the socio economic, and environmental impacts. And so coming up with a plan for our community that we call Towards 2030. Essentially, we use a really contemporary framework with the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals, and then we localize them for our small community. So we had some support funding and support by researchers. But it was ultimately aimed at assessing our community, getting together and chatting about all the different issues and what what was important. And then sitting down and doing the hard task of actually writing it down and articulating what it was that we wanted to aspire to, over the next 10 years.
And it’s a great framework. A slight side note, I don’t know if you know, James Ritchie, who’s a wonderful peer of mine and works in the collective of corporate2community. He’s based in Germany at the moment, and they actually have sustainable development flags in all the local towns and cities. So maybe you could start that in Australia, you could have some sustainable development flags that are kind of shining, to showcase where you’re contributing and what you contributing to. But that’s a side note. So you don’t have to do that one!
Oh, I love that idea. Actually, I’m going to take that, thank you!
7. There you go. Now, the series obviously has a focus on fire and rain. So if you could change one thing about how fire is managed, relevant to your local community area, or just in general, what might that be?
Oh, this is a great question. Rachel and I talk about this after every single conversation that we have with our guests, because, you know, we just tend to come away thinking, you know, there’s some things that need to change in this space. And for me, it’s very much about the language and how we talk about fire and that we, we use words like, you know, it’s risky, and it’s dangerous. And it’s a scary space, when in fact, listening to John and Jack with our traditional owners, and also listening to Kevin Tolhurst our fire scientist, fire is very much part of our landscape. We live in a eucalypt forest, and this is how the ecosystem needs fire to be sustainable and to be healthy. So somewhere along the way, we’ve lost that connection and an understanding about our landscape. So, I guess for me, that’s one thing we would like to do is talk about how we can do fire differently. And John and Jack talk about this, there is a difference between bushfire and fire. So, you know, one is where, you know, it can be a managed process that we plan burns and smaller, cooler burns. And the other one is when we we suppress it, and we hold on long enough until it bursts and we have no control over a big devastating bush fire.
Yeah, I was thinking as well. The other thing that was mentioned to mentioning earlier is I would love the system to work better as a system and to understand each other better, and the agencies and the community. That’s one thing I’d love to see much more conversation between everyone about the big picture of fire. And I think lately we’ve heard that, unfortunately, what’s coming out of the Royal Commission are that the solutions are focused on investing in more high cost infrastructure and kind of infrastructure solutions rather than a low cost lower tech solutions, which is what Robert Glasser mentioned in the first episode, you know, and localized community solutions, this effort to reframe the conversation, education, buildings, supporting indigenous knowledge, that’s where we’d love it to be the direction to be heading, but I’m not sure that’s what’s coming out of the Royal Commission. Sadly.
With my final question always…
What 2 things would you like to be done differently in the disaster space?
1. Right. Yes, well, number one, I’d love our government agencies to operate more fluidly to be able to change and adapt quickly, and to nurture and support innovation and just be less bureaucratic.
2. And secondly, I’d love people to spend more time, agencies or whoever, to spend more time reimagining. And we’ve kind of switched over to this in the Conversation Series a bit. And we asked now, our guest to have a think about if things were working brilliantly – like the best we could possibly hope for, in 10 or 15, 20 years time, what does that look like? So really deeply and imagine vividly. Imagine that in all the players and pieces of that puzzle, and then create a plan or a strategy from there where you want to get to. I’m surprised when people are stuck in the dilemma. how little they look for, and they imagine that that’s a future scenario. So I’d love that to happen a little bit more.
Rachel reimagine is a word that actually I learnt a few months ago from Jennifer Gray Thompson, who I had on my podcast a few episodes ago, and she’s from the Rebuild North Bay Foundation in California and part of their tagline, I think it’s recovery, rebuild, reimagine. And it’s that word of hope. And it’s that, you know, let’s not rebuild what it was. Let’s not rebuild because that’s the only thing we know, let’s reimagine, like, What does great look like? What is going to be a great Otways community in 10 years ahead. And what do we need in terms of a roadmap to get there, which I think is so exciting, and so much more inspiring than just rebuilding or redoing names or processes. So I love that you’ve included that. Emma how about you?
1. So two things that I’d like done differently in the disaster space firstly, for me, I’d like to start at a much younger age. I think we need to start with our school kids, and just for all rural school communities right across Victoria and Australia, that are impacted, in bushfire prone areas, to start talking about it without our young kids, because as adults, as we know, our lives get so busy, and it’s really hard to cut through. So if we get some of that basic understanding happening at a really young age, I think it just sticks with us. And we have that just as part of our core and foundational learning. So for me, that’s, that’s the first thing.
2. And secondly, this idea of these community led solutions, just keep talking to communities about the things that are important to them. And the impacts that things like bushfires can have on them, because they’ll help come up with solutions. And they don’t have to be, like we’re talking about early, they don’t have to be high cost infrastructure solutions. They might be small, low tech solutions, that we can help us just be a little bit more aware of our environment and the things around us and ways that we can, you know, plan going forward, be more resilient and reimagine that bigger picture.
So important, so true. And I often like to say that it’s the small things that can actually make the biggest difference. And I think there are a lot of examples. And that’s another, I guess, common theme that’s coming through on the conversations that we’re having is that it doesn’t have to be these high systemic, high level major infrastructure investments. In fact, we potentially will get a lot more out of just investing in the little things that can change a lot, you know, led by the communities needing to change. Rachel and Emma, thank you so much for joining me. So in this episode, I’ve been talking with Rachel Lopes and Emma Ashton, and they’re the co-producers of the Fire and Rain Conversation Series. And again, I’ve put a link to the series on our website. Dare I say it, we have been talking about the Fire and Rain Conversation Series. Thank you so much for your time, and I really can’t wait to hear more about the great work that you’re doing in your local community.