23 October 2010, National Library of Australia, TEDxCanberra, Canberra, Australia
Family. Alright, so what if I tell you that that photo was taken on the 21st of February, 2009? And if I tell you that over 60% of those people in that photo lost everything they had on February the 7th, 2009, it sort of says something's going on there. Because on February the 7th, 2009, Flowerdale was the last town that was hit in a major way. So on Black Saturday there were three towns that were absolutely smashed. Kinglake, Marysville and Flowerdale.
Two hundred and twenty four homes were lost in Flowerdale. Thirteen people died. And what sort of happened after that? So this isn't about the CFA, this is about a community who said, "We've got a problem and we've got to solve it ourselves." Because what frustrates me in life is that, and I think it's a massive problem in Australia and the rest of the world, is that as soon as something goes wrong, they've got to fix it. The government. You know, like great, we've changed the light globes, now you go and have 150 countries work out how to solve climate change in Copenhagen. Ridiculous.
We've got to own our outcomes and when something's important to us, we've got to do something about it because when there is no "they", you are the "they". We are the "they". We've got to say, "What are we going to do about this?", because when you're faced with that and that's what's left of your town, and there's no-one else.
Because the other great thing about Flowerdale was that no emergency service came into Flowerdale, which is 70 k's from Melbourne, until the 11th of February. Okay? There was no "they". There was no-one else. It was just the locals.
The other thing was, the town was still on fire. The CFA had got called out earlier that day and went to the other side of the mountain, and it couldn't get back. There was one CFA guy left in the town. As it was hitting, he went to the pub where everybody had sort of gathered – every town had an Alamo and at Flowerdale it was the pub – and said, "This is out of control. We're not going to be able to stop it. Get out." And led a convoy of those people who were there out of town. Except there were eight people there, led by the publican Steve Phelan. Steve said, "I'm not going. I'm not going to let this town burn down." And a guy called Stylesy said, "Nor am I."
So the eight of them stopped and waited for the fire to come. But as the fire hit the southern part of the town, people started evacuating back to the pub and there was chaos. But they stood up and there's a guy particularly that you'll see called Stylesy who, unassuming bloke who showed some amazing leadership. But I'll let you see for yourself. It'll theoretically play.
Video: There's not much left in Flowerdale. Fire has flattened almost all of it. But after seeing so many lives and homes destroyed, these mates are fighting back.
They've had no formal training. These are just ordinary blokes battling the firestorm as best they can with what they can.
Shane Burke has already lost his home ...
Pete Williams: That's my brother-in-law and sister-in-law.
Video: and he's not about to let it happen to anyone else.
Brett Styles saved his and still wants to fight.
They've battled much bigger blazes to save Flowerdale's pub, community centre and school, but they're worried this spot fire could turn ugly if the wind changes.
Suddenly it does.
Now these blokes don't doubt what they're doing is downright dangerous. But Flowerdale is their home and they're desperate to protect what's left of it.
Pete Williams: I got involved when my sister-in-law drove out of that town with 10 pages of hand-written notes from those people in the pub. The army came in on Wednesday and roadblocked the town.
Those guys who'd fought to save the school, the pub, the hall, had run out of water. The town's still on fire. They leave, go outside the road block, go to come back in and the army won't let them back in. The army was told, "Don't let anybody in and get 'em off the hill." But those guys weren't going to leave. The thing is, they'd fought to save the school, the town, the hall.
When I said to Stylesy, the guy with the broken leg, "What were you thinking?", he said, "Mate, I knew if the school, the hall, the pub went, this town would never come back, and that was something I was prepared to put my life on the line for." And when you get that sort of commitment in a community, amazing things can happen.
But I'm a web guy. I live in Melbourne. My sister-in-law and brother-in-law were there. I looked at this and between the sort of hysterical sobs of my sister-in-law, I just started to get angry.
But, you know, anger doesn't do a lot to help anybody. It was like, "What can I do? I've got to get this message out." You know, a key lesson from Flowerdale. If you don't know what to do, that's okay.
But do something. Start somewhere. So I set up a blog. I wrote this thing and even here, I mean, you won't be able to read this. "I don't know what to do but if you read this and can do something to get the story out, maybe we can get something to happen." So I put that up there. I tweeted it out. I asked some of the friends of mine who were big twitterheads to push it out as well.
And then suddenly, half an hour later, I'm on the radio on 3AW, the Red Cross is talking to me, and things started to happen. But that sort of spirit that got out there and this sort of became something that just went beyond it. The other thing was that on the 19th of February there was a guy, Burgo, John Burgess, who'd been out of town. He came back and had a look at what was going on. That is how we ran Flowerdale. It's like sort of Twitter in real life. You would just turn up to that pub, stand out there and within two or three minutes people were saying, "Pete, we need some more computers down there." "Pete, we've run out of diesel." "Pete, we've got no sausages for the temporary village."
And that's how we ran. But we went out to the media and said, "You know what? We don't blame anybody here. Everyone's overwhelmed but we're going to do it ourselves." And the first things we said we're going to do is we're going to build a temporary village. Because the biggest things that you face, and even somebody talked about it this morning, this notion of if you own your own recovery, if the community stays together, you'll come out of this strong. So we said, "We're going to do it ourselves. If you want to get on board, fantastic. But if not, we don't really care."
The other thing was, and this sort of goes back to this theme of thinking way beyond. Burgo in this Age thing, there's Stylesy in the background, Burgo said, "You know what? There's no model for what to do here." There is no model, so on the 19th of February he's saying, "But what we think we can do. We're smart enough around here and we're well connected enough around here that we're going to create a model for other victims of disasters." I mean, I look at it and think, "What were we thinking? How were we thinking like that." But is was sort of ... I don't know, it's the best experience I've ever had in my life. But the thing was, we were determined that what we learnt and what happened to us, we were going to teach others about how they could do something about it.
The other thing is to think about networks, alright? So this this community, it's a rural community, it's not a wealthy community at all. It just happened that my sister-in-law happened to know some dude who's a good web guy. Burgo used to work in logistics. Andrew Forrest just flew in on his helicopter and said, "Guys, what do you need?" Everyone else was saying this is what we're doing. Forrest flies in and says, "What do you need?" We need accommodation. Fifteen dongas, mining huts, were on their way. We've got all these clothes, sort of looked like an op shop on steroids, but we've got no laundry. A laundry is on its way. And that laundry became the biggest and most important piece of community infrastructure, and still is today, because that became the gathering place.
We decided that we really needed to get close to people. So John Cantwell, who's now running Afghanistan with the Australian contingent in Afghanistan, was the initial guy in VIBRA. We created a network with him. I happened to be mates with Peter Cosgrove. Don't ask me how but weird things happen. Cossie's clearly the best disaster guy in the country. He did Cyclone Larry and he did the reconstruction of Timor. I rang him and said, "Mate, can you come down?" And he said, "I've been hassled but I'll come down for you guys." What he told us and what he taught us in those few hours that he spent in the town was invaluable.
nd this guy at the end is a guy called Billy Price. Billy is a peggy on building sites. He's sort of the guy who runs around and does the sandwiches and gets the cups of tea. He's a communicator but he's a very staunch unionist. We built a village on a cricket ground with no water, no electricity, no comms, nothing. Billy, "I'll get the Plumbers Union to do the water. I'll get the Electrical Trades Union to come and do this." The networks that these people have. You know, the power that we've got through networks is amazing. And the thing is, use the networks.
The other thing was we set an impossible goal. We basically said we're going to build this temporary village. Never been done before in Victoria or Australia as far as we know. We sat down and said, "Okay, who've we got here?" We had Ken Mival who was in the town and had been burnt out as well. He was the president of the Australian Consulting Engineers Association and worked for a mob called URS group. He had architects and town planners. We had Rob Dumsday who was an economist who could do the sort of numbers. We just had people from Leighton Constructions, Baulderstones. We had something like 26 organisations.
organisations said to them, "How are we going to coordinate this fast?" I said, "Well, why don't we set up a Wiki? Who knows what a Wiki is?" And in Flowerdale, nobody knew what a Wiki is. I know you do. Jesus Christ. I said, "Do you know what Wikipedia is?" He knows what it is. They didn't know what Wikipedia is. Oh my God. Ah, Li Li Fever, Wiki's in plain English. Three minutes later they knew what a Wiki was and we used this Wiki to coordinate the way we did the village.
We developed a business plan which was fully drafted, costed, 3D models, the works, in about 10 days. And we handed it over to John Brumby and Christine Nixon and our mate Bill Shorten's in the background there, wrapped up in a big red fire truck. Brumby said to me, "Do I have to read this?" I said, "No, mate, you just have to fund it."
This bloke here. This bloke here, Ian Johnson. He was living rough in Brisbane on the day of Black Saturday. He hitched down because he had no money, he had nothing he could offer other than his arms and legs and his willingness to work 18 hours a day for three months straight. I said to Ian, "Mate, do you know how to use Flickr and a digital camera? No? Good. Here, here's how you do it." He took photos every day. I'd ring him up every night and that's how I wrote my blog from Melbourne. You know, these people can learn. You can empower people and we get amazing things happening.
We got contacted through ... The other thing was we were accessible. We were really accessible. We were the only town that had set up a blog. We were the only town that's saying, "Come in." You know, because we knew if people come in they might see something that they could do. We were contacted by Darley Stud, Sheikh Mohammed's mob. They rang us and said, "Look, we've got a million and a half to give to communities directly. We don't want to go through government. Are we talking to the right people?" It was a very fast "yes". And they said, "Well, what do you want? What are you going to do?" And this notion of, "Jesus, we've been in such reactive relief mode here."
We set up a model, sort of thinking about community participation and working groups and leaders of work engines around the things we had to do, and a community committee, and facilitators. I'm one of the facilitators. But we looked at that and said, "Something's wrong." Ah, that's better. Because the thing is, it's the gravity of the community. I don't even live there. I've got a stake in it, I suppose, but my job's to enable what the community wants. So we ran forums. We got the community together and said, "What do you guys need? What do we want this town to be like?"
On March the 17th at a public meeting, they said, "You know what? We can rebuild sustainably. If we're going to do this, why don't we do it right?" Why don't we do it so that in 200 years time, the people of this town say, "Those people made the right decision." We made it so it was highly participative. There was a community committee to coordinate the enablers: "Pete, get me this." "Pete, get me that." "Get Cossie here." Whatever, but it was that sort of notion of the upside down triangle.
We called in the CSIRO. That's Matty Inman in the middle there. We called in their best water people, their best bushfire safety people, their best integrated planning people. They ran workshops with the community. This is in April. All around, how do we rebuild this town sustainably? We got close to the leaders. I've got a lot of hero shots there. But, you know, here's me telling Brumby how to run the State. There's Burgo with Christine Nixon and Kevin Rudd when they launched the Rebuilding Together thing. And I suppose at that point there was time for a bit of a change because our main symbol up until that time was this Eureka flag. The flag of civil rebellion in Australia when the miners took on the troopers over the mining laws.
But we actually then moved to this sort of notion. This sort of notion of rebuilding back from the flames, with a little green emblem there which represented this town. And this emblem now is tattooed on over a hundred people in Flowerdale. It's become a symbol of recovery and it's something that we rally about. So first it was a symbol of we need to do it ourselves. We need to fly under the flag of Eureka. Now we fly under the flag of our tree.
Bill Shorten needs a special mention. Bill turned up to the main events, to the shake the hands, the cut the ribbons. But he also turned up, he'd come to Burgo's shed, talk to us, "What do you guys need? How can I help? What else is happening? What's not working?" We love Bill. That's why Bill's standing there with a special presentation we gave to him with our tree logo and stuff for the work he'd done. And Prince William. Again, the other thing was, what started to happen was when they needed a safe town to go to. Because the other rule we had is if you want help from people, don't punch them on the nose and then say come and help. So we didn't whinge. That was one rule we had. Don't whinge.
We needed inspiration. Who's done this before? I got told about a town called Greensburg in Kansas. They got smashed by a tornado in 2007. I saw their blog. One lesson from Flowerdale. See what they've done before, pick up the phone and ring. I rang Bob Dixson, the mayor. He ended up in Flowerdale two months later and we learnt so much from Greensburg.
Leverage the crowd. Where did I get this thing? I ran a competition on Flickr and crowd-sourced it. It's not too bad, eh? Punch above your weight. On the 7th of February, in Flowerdale nobody knew what a Wiki, blog, Flickr, YouTube was. In October that same year, we became the first non North American winner of a Forrester Groundswell Award. Three years of awards and we've won it for best use of social media for social impact. You know, it's that sort of notion of what we can do when we push.
The other thing was that we'd been there the whole time. People were coming in and out. We'd been there since day one so we led the collaboration. We did our own recovery plan. We taught the government how to use Wikis to coordinate. We ran status reports weekly and got the rest of the communities to run status reports so we could drive this recovery. And at the moment, we've put through a transition plan because our job will be done by the end of this year and the community will sustain it through the training that we've done to train community groups how to run it.
I've only got 44 seconds left. Bob Dixson said to me the most important thing to do is to have an integrated planning office. We suggested that to the government. They said, "Oh, we'll put one in Kinglake and Marysville." I said, "When are you opening?" They said, "Sometime later in the year." I said, "We open in July." We did that and we also built a completely integrated, step-by-step rebuilding guide for bushfires that is being used not only in Victoria but across the country.
I suppose, on a final note, after Christchurch this appeared in a sort of magazine in New Zealand. Clearly Christchurch has a lot to gain by building back green. Flowerdale in Australia did it. So did Greensburg. Pay it forward, own your outcomes and you can achieve the most amazing things.