After The Fires
Written by Ben Curran 31 October 2013
Springwood resident and Blue Mountains business owner.
Businesses in the Blue Mountains have taken a massive hit. It had already been a tough year for small businesses with the lead up to the federal election, however nothing could prepare businesses for what was to come.
Disaster hits the Blue Mountains
On Wednesday 16 October 2013 the State Mine Fire started near Lithgow and weather conditions were deteriorating. As winds intensified, on Thursday 17 October 2013, around 1:38pm the RFS social media notification started to spread “Crews are responding to reports of a new fire in Springwood in the Blue Mountains”.
Around 2pm an Emergency Warning was issued within the Springwood area. Around 2:30pm spot fires were reported along Hawkesbury Rd. Within the next 60 minutes a significant number of homes were completely destroyed as well as beloved pets and countless wildlife injured or destroyed. Schools were in lockdown and children were being evacuated. This hot and windy Thursday afternoon in October was the start of what was to be one of Springwood, Winmalee and Yellow Rock’s most devastating bush fires on record. It was a fire that sent a community into a 10 day long battle of fires, fear, anxiety, disruption, impaired sleep and total physical exhaustion. Around 200 Blue Mountains families lost absolutely everything. Throughout the community, everyone knew someone who was directly impacted. We came together to support friends and families in need, however every resident was feeling the significant pain and suffering that had engulfed our community and put our everyday routine lives on hold.
Although there were three major fires burning in the Blue Mountains region, it wasn’t until several days later that the severity of the situation was fully realised and felt by the upper Blue Mountains who now joined the lower Blue Mountains residents in this crisis. With continued fire weather warnings in place, short notice community meetings were being held across the region with staggering numbers in attendance. The Katoomba community meeting venue and time were changed to accommodate the 2,000 plus people attending. On Wednesday 23 October 2013 residents who did not have a bush fire survival plan were advised to leave the Blue Mountains. All Blue Mountains schools were closed so that families could stay together. This natural disaster was unfolding as year 12 students were being shuffled around from school to school so that could sit their Higher School Certificate exams. An unprecedented communication message from Blue Mountains Tourism clearly advised visitors not to come to the Blue Mountains.
Fortunately, throughout this time, with significant thanks to our firies, RFS, emergency services and volunteers, our Blue Mountains community managed to survive this disaster without loss of life.
Whilst the entire Blue Mountains community was impacted by this natural disaster which attracted media exposure on a global scale, residents around the Springwood area were hardest hit extending from Faulconbridge through to Mt Riverview.
The word ‘open’ was very loosely applied. Many schools within the Springwood area were essentially shutdown throughout this entire period. Businesses were closed either due to direct bush fire threat, staff away protecting their family & properties, or simply lack of customers.
Beyond our immediate human instinct of protection and concern for one another within our community, the emergency eventually passed. We all began to unpack the boots of our cars full of family photographs, essential documents and survival gear as we embarked on our journey of recovery and return to normality.
With many now homeless and feeling a deep sense of loss, most of our community returned to their routine lives completely exhausted after unplanned emergency absenteeism. We were now in a position to take stock of where we were at before the natural disaster started.
Businesses taking stock
After 10 days of ‘business on hold’, for business owners, the resultant impact of this natural disaster began to sink in. When business owners returned their focus to their businesses, not only were they carrying the same feelings and emotional exhaustion as the rest of our community, they returned with a significantly increased level of stress resulting from business losses, combined with the new overwhelming task ahead of business recovery.
Yes, we were safe. Yes the fires had eased. Yes there were many within our community without homes. But from a business perspective, we found ourselves asking the resounding question “What happened to the last 10 days?”
- Emergency Warnings were issued with many employees away protecting their homes.
- Salaries still needed to be paid.
- Productivity came to a standstill.
- Any employees who were physically present for some of this period were on ‘Watch and Act’ alert, tired and unable to concentrate on tasks at hand. Water cooler conversations were hours long focused on ‘Who lost their home’, ‘Are you ok?’, ‘How can we help?’
- Neighbouring businesses were coming together to discuss the crisis and come to terms with what was unfolding around us.
- Customers stopped coming and cancelled appointments and bookings (both short and long term).
- Many projects were put on-hold delaying income or incurring additional unforeseen expenses.
- Events planned were either cancelled or postponed.
For businesses in the Blue Mountains, the bush fire emergency resulted in an extended period of lost productivity, loss of continuity, loss of income and conceivably for some, a significant impact on cash-flow.
Insurance policies do not cover financial losses which are indirect and difficult to quantify.
Around 50% of Blue Mountains businesses turnover less than $100,000 per year. When no income is generated, in many instances it is the business owner who sacrifices their own wage to pay for and retain staff. Most businesses in the Blue Mountains operate as a lifestyle choice. Most business owners understand they can personally earn more by getting a job outside the Blue Mountains region. Of course there are exceptions, however the reality is that the majority of Blue Mountains small businesses simply break even and just manage to provide business owners with a wage. So when a natural disaster occurs it is not profit that is sacrificed, it is the business owner’s personal income. This is hard for many to comprehend.
Financial impact on businesses
The financial impact on businesses associated with this major natural disaster is something business owners simply have to accept. We need to write off around 10 days as lost, and focus on recovery, not only from the impact of this disaster, but ongoing recovery from what has already been a challenging 12 months for many small businesses across NSW.
For some businesses, this disaster may bring new opportunities. For others, new challenges. Undoubtedly for some there will be many hard decisions in relation to future sustainability.
In short, after running ‘businesses on hold’, unless your business was directly impacted by fire, there is absolutely no support to help get your business back on its feet.
It is up to us as business owners to get through this as best we can.
The good news is there will be disaster recovery funding going to selected government endorsed organisations. They will be responsible for managing these funds to best help get our region as a whole back on track.
However, the bottom line is, small businesses, independent businesses, the businesses which run without government funding, the businesses which provide the majority of our region’s local employment, the hard working ‘Aussie Battlers’ are mostly on their own to pick up the pieces.
Business owners in the Blue Mountains now face incredible stress and pressure after this natural disaster.
Businesses all in this together
There is no question this natural disaster has been devastating. However it is our choice to live and work in such an amazing region. We understand that bush fires can and will occur. We are blessed with such an awesome community. We can be thankful for all that we have. We are not alone in our situation. Many Blue Mountains businesses are all in the same boat at this time. We are all suffering. Together we can get through this.
What we can all do as a community is continue to support our local businesses.
By the way, whoever said asking for a discount doesn’t hurt, please think again.