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Scenes from the Queensland fire crisis.

Queensland fires show the best of humanity – and importance of planning

It’s hard to think of a more frightening natural event than the firestorms that have engulfed parts of Queensland in the past fortnight.

As a State, we are accustomed to surviving – and bouncing back – from cyclones and storms. But to have more than 70 active fires across Queensland, many of them raging in the south of the State, is hard to fathom.

To see homes lost in Queensland and New South Wales is devastating. The heritage-listed Binna-Burra Lodge on the Gold Coast has stood since the 1930s but the glorious isolation that captivated tourists ultimately proved its downfall, with single-road access making it impossible for emergency services to assist quickly.

The widespread and crippling drought hitting our State only adds to the heartbreak.

But amid all the destruction, we have also seen the best of people.

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Strangers providing clothing and housing for people who have lost everything. People around South East Queensland spontaneously gathering at shopping centre car parks (and other central points) to collect donations of water for firefighters battling 35-degree heat and clothes, food and animal feed for displaced families.

Several Brisbane schools – including the one my children attend – have been taking donations of water and food to be delivered to emergency services personnel on the frontline. Apart from supplying invaluable provisions, it’s a great lesson for the children to encourage them to think about the people who protect us every day – and the sacrifices they make to do so.

The other thing highlighted by our bushfire outbreak has been the importance of planning for a crisis in advance.

Stories have emerged of families, who diligently cleared their properties of dead leaves and wood, making sure there were no trees overhanging and, in extreme circumstances, actually clearing or digging firebreaks around their properties. Some of them say this is what saved their properties.

This kind of scenario planning is often all that stands between a near-miss and a tragedy. Identifying possible threats, risks and escape plans are what people have to do when they live in areas of high risk. Escape plans are a must for people in locations hit frequently by cyclones and flooding or, in this case, bushfires.

In my previous work with Biosecurity Queensland, under the Department of Agriculture and Fisheries, this was exactly the type of work I had to undertake.

There were many questions to ask. Which stakeholders are involved? Who needed to be spoken to? When did we need to speak to them? What messages had to be passed on? Which channels should be used? And, of course, what physical action would have to be taken?

In those instances, I was planning around potential plant or animal incursions. But the same basic principal applies to preparing for any kind of crisis – whether it’s a disruption of service at a processing plant, an incident playing out in the media or, as we’ve seen in recent weeks in Queensland, a series of bushfires.

Photos and vision in the media may currently show the devastation of properties lost. But it is worth remembering that through timely (and smart) use of social media, prompt evacuations and pre-emptive shifting of livestock, so much more has been saved.

None of this is possible without effective planning.

To see how you can help those affected by the Queensland and New South Wales fires, visit GIVIT.

Peta Baldwin is the Queensland Director of leading strategic communications consultancy Cannings Purple and an expert in crisis communications and issues and reputation management. She has worked in-house at Mount Isa Mines, Alcoa and AngloGold Ashanti and was part of the Biosecurity Queensland team responsible for the planning and execution of the biggest biosecurity emergency preparedness exercise undertaken in Australia in the past 10 years. Contact Peta

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Photos from Queensland Fire and Emergency Services/Tallebudgera Valley Rural Fire Brigade