School at centre of fire recovery

Wytaliba’s story of renewal from the climate- induced bushfires of 2019–20 is far from over, but it is clear from the dedication of Federation members that the public school will be an essential component of community restoration.

The re-opening of Wytaliba Public School was achieved on schedule through the procurement of local builders and suppliers within the region. “Goodwill from local contractors over that summer helped get the job done on time,” Federation Representative Kelly Murphy said.

But while buildings could be replaced and new facilities installed relatively quickly, trauma recovery and restoration of community spirit is a much longer process.

Even as students returned to their usual lessons at Wytaliba from neighbouring Red Range Public School, climate chaos continued to disrupt normal school operations. By February of 2020, drought and fires had turned to flood, and the replacement bridge between the school and the community was washed out several times during term 1 of 2020, further testing the resolve of staff and students.

Then COVID-19 restrictions interrupted many aspects of the Department’s trauma recovery program and prevented the school psychologist from visiting the school in person.

Now that COVID-19 restrictions are easing, the school is ready to support the community as a hub for parents and community members who are co-ordinating recovery strategies.

That recovery is taking place in an eerie landscape that has nowhere near returned to ‘normal’; if it ever will. The surrounding hills that were once densely canopied are now populated by bare blackened trunks. The sunlight that now reaches the once-shaded forest floor has fed an explosion of invasive nuisance weeds like Farmers’ Friends and 2-metre high Stinking Roger plants. The endemic populations of blacktailed and pretty-faced wallabies have been replaced by much larger eastern grey kangaroos. The riverbed is full of dead strands of casuarinas, many of which first perished in the long drought that drained the river, only to be finished off by fire. These casuarinas will eventually be toppled by a windstorm, to form further snags in a river that is already clogged by degraded granite washing down from the bare hillsides.

Such is the degradation wrought by climate change.

The clearest sign of hope is that through the thinned-out foliage the school itself is now directly visible from the community residential area and roadside, where it was once thoroughly concealed in the vegetation.

Ms Murphy also acknowledged union contributions to Wytaliba’s recovery. In addition to Federation’s emergency support fund for members in fire-affected schools, the school was grateful to receive a direct donation from the Norwegian Seafarers Union via the Maritime Union of Australia. Donations from the Norwegian Seafarers Union members raised more than $30,000, which has been shared across many fire-affected schools.