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In Episode 3, host Rae Johnston chats with Takesa Frank from Episode 2, a climate activist and young Aboriginal person living in Yuin Country whose hometown was impacted by the 2019-2020 Black Summer bushfires. Joining them is Felicity from Royal Far West, a UNICEF partner working to deliver mental health support to country children. Together, they discuss their lived experience of the bushfires, the importance of building bushfire resilience, and how Royal Far West has helped communities get back on their feet after natural disasters.

Host: Rae Johnston, Ambassador for UNICEF Australia, TV presenter and podcaster 

Guests: Felicity from Royal Far West and climate activist Takesa Frank

Producers:  Liz Tse, Freya Conomos and Lara Robertson

Resources:

Transcript

Rae Johnston  0:00   

UNICEF Australia acknowledges the traditional custodians of the land on which we live and work and pay our respects to the ancestors who cared for this country, and the elders who continue to today. 

Rae Johnston  0:21   

Young people have a lot to say. And it's time we listen. Welcome to NextGen, a UNICEF Australia podcast that gives young people a platform to speak up on issues they care about. Every episode, I pass the mic to experts and young people as we discuss everything from climate change to mental health and inequality. I'm Rae Johnston, Ambassador for UNICEF Australia, STEM journalist, TV presenter, podcaster and climate Champion. Over four episodes, I will be speaking with experts and young voices about climate change. What is it? How is it affecting young people and what UNICEF Australia is doing about it? From West Sydney to West Pakistan. Climate change is not a tomorrow problem. It's the greatest threat facing children right now. 

Rae Johnston  1:22   

In our third episode, I'm chatting to Felicity from Royal Far West, which is a partner organization of UNICEF working to deliver mental health support to country kids. Welcome.  

Felicity Anicich 1:33  

Thank you. Thanks for having me.  

Rae Johnston  1:35 

And we also have Takesa who featured on Episode Two and has experienced bushfires in her hometown. Thanks for coming back. The 2019/2020 Black Summer bushfires are an experience that none of us will ever be able to forget. A catastrophic 19 million hectares of land burned. More than 3000 homes were burnt 10s of 1000s of people were displaced. Takesa, you were personally impacted by those devastating fires. Can you talk us through your day leading up to the fires?   

Takesa Frank  2:12   

Yeah. Firstly, I like to acknowledge that this is my personal story. And I acknowledge that there were other individuals that were more impacted than myself and acknowledge that every single person, I think, across Australia was actually impacted by those fires. So I guess, leading up to the fires, I live probably 10k's away where this fire started. And this ended up being a pretty big fire and taking out entire villages along the south coast. Leading up to it, we were on high alert, we knew there was smoke, and I wouldn't say there was one specific day because in the end, we were fighting fires for up to two weeks, and, you know, concentrating on all different areas in our community. 

Rae Johnston  2:59   

So did you have any clue of what was to come? 

Takesa Frank  3:02   

Yeah, like, obviously, when there was no fire, we didn't even think about it. It was summer. So we're probably just enjoying, you know, our summer down the river working at the local blueberry farm where me and my siblings work. And then, but we didn't know when it was about to hit, you know, the property because I guess living rural, you're always on alert of natural disasters. And, you know, obviously, you can see the smoke and you know, when it's going to hit. 

Rae Johnston  3:33   

The colour of the smoke changes. You can hear the wind as well. You can hear that fire, can't you?  

Takesa Frank  3:39   

Yeah, definitely.  You can even tell the animals know, before humans know. And I think that's a really, you know, intel of what's coming, you know, you just see more animals kind of arrive up near like the house and onto the grass area that we had in front of the house as well.  

Rae Johnston 3:59   

How did it all unfold?  

Takesa Frank  4:01   

So I guess obviously, it wasn't one day and it's actually four years ago today, that on our property, we had a strike team of about eight RFS vehicles rock out. And then within half an hour, they set light to like half of our property. 

Rae Johnston 4:18

Oh, wow. 

Takesa Frank 4:19

Yeah, it was a really shocking experience. Because, one it was like our favorite part of the property. And like, you know, we didn't have a say if we wanted it to be burned, it was like they're coming in. They're, they're burning this part of the property to avoid the bushfire coming in, and then they left while the fire was still going. So that was, you know, a really stressful time we were sitting on the balcony, and I've never seen anything like it like you could just see from the balcony and then we kind of have a hill, like a downhill and then just like a bunch of forest and the whole forest was just red, like as far as we could see. 

Takesa Frank 5:00

And then yeah, then they left and all of the RFS ended up getting evacuated from our part of the area. And they said, 'you either go now or you're going to be stuck here for the entire, you know, rest of the fire, depending on how long it goes'. And as a family, we decided to stay not only, you know, to protect our own home, but also to protect our neighbor's homes, and also our forest, we are so deeply connected to that forest that we wanted to protect as much of it as we could. 

Takesa Frank 5:33

And then that's when so you know, that day, it's kind of yeah, a bit tricky to remember exactly the play by play, because obviously, it was a very long period of time with not much sleep and talking. So I had one of my brothers, my sister, and my dad, we were all out there during this time, and we just decided we're going to leave our house. Because, you know, we had a bit of grass around it. So we thought, yeah, we should be fine. And then went to the neighbour's house and started checking, because some of them did decide to leave. So we kind of were doing property checks around the place. And then there's also the local blueberry farm that I talked about. And obviously, if we lost the blueberry farm, that's an entire income gone. And some of these trees, over 30 years old. 

Takesa Frank 6:18

So then we spent the next week, just fighting fires, they're trying to keep them off the blueberry plants. There was like, I would say, the most scary time during the fires was, we were kind of in this back corner. And it was like getting pretty hectic or and I was 17 at the time, and then my younger sister was 16. So we're quite young. And obviously, Dad's very concerned for our safety as well. But we kind of had the job that needed to be done. And then my boss and like neighbour and friend kind of just went into the bush and didn't come out for like half an hour. 

Rae Johnston 6:54

Oh wow. 

Takesa Frank 6:55

And everyone was like so concerned. And then, you know, finally they came out. And yeah, we ended up calling triple zero in that instance. And no one came, we heard that, you know, maybe someone's going to come maybe they're not. But we were left alone. And I guess, you know, we do take some of that responsibility, because we did decide to stay but at the time, it felt, you know, very lonely to be out in the forest. Like, you know, we're literally in a very dense forest. Most of it is New South Wales, like run by a New South Wales forestry. So not much upkept in terms of fire management. 

Takesa Frank 7:34

But often people, the one question that I get asked about the fires was, 'was I glad I was there?' Or would have I'd rather been in town, I guess, like in the safety of a larger community? And I'd say no, I wouldn't have wanted to be in town. Because at least when I knew I was out there, I knew where most like all of my family, obviously, there was some in town, my mom, who's a nurse at the local hospital was obviously working 24/7 at the local hospital, and then my brother doesn't live at home anymore. Well, at that point in it. And yeah, I would if like we had to choose and make that decision. Again, I think I would have done the exact same because I knew that, 'oh, yeah, there's my brother, there's my sister', and I didn't have to worry about trying to get in contact with them. 

Rae Johnston  8:22   

Thank you for sharing all that with me. We've got remarkably similar stories of that time, actually. So it's, it's really nice to hear your perspective on it and understand that the feelings that I had at that time caused by the same kind of factors are appropriate feelings to have at that time. I think, you know, the, the loneliness. And also, I think one of the things that people don't really discuss, I don't know if it was the same for you, but because you're fighting the fires or, you know, working with the fire or just trying to just get rid of the embers basically as they land and stop them from turning into bigger fires, you have to do that in shifts, you can't let it go while everyone has a nice sleep overnight. So did you also have members of your family staying up in the night watching out for embers? 

Takesa Frank  9:10   

Yeah, definitely. There was this one night that my dad and older brother went to check on a neighbor's property it was like it was pitch black, but also light at the same time because of the fire. And then they like didn't come back for a really, really long time. And I got we're gonna have to get up and go check on them. And then we went down there and there was a tiny home on that property. And the fire was like right next to this tiny home and then dad and my brother continuing to fight this fire and it was like, how much effort are we going to put into saving this one asset? 

Takesa Frank 9:49 

And as soon as me and my sister got there we went and checked on them. And then my dad was just like, leave like you're not staying here and you have to get back to the neighbor's property just so that you that, like we were out of danger. And I think he was really stressed at that point. There was also another point that my sister got, like a little bit burnt, it wasn't a serious burn. But there was like, em, embers falling on her. And that was also when dad, like, kind of stepped into action was like 'you guys like really have to, like not get that close to the fire'. And so I think, you know, it would have been very scary for my dad to have, you know, three of the kids out there fighting these fires. 

Rae Johnston  10:31   

For us, after the fires had stopped, the property became a bit of a wildlife refuge. You know, we had such a big influx of birds and mammals all hiding out that basically they had nowhere else to go. What was life for you in the aftermath. 

Takesa Frank  10:51   

So we have a really interesting story with after the fires and not just like the immediate after the fires, but like about the three month mark, and obviously still everything [is] really recovering at that point. And New South Wales Forestry is obviously a New South Wales Government corporation, and they log our forest and less than three months after those fires, they came in and started logging our forest. Yeah, so 85% of the forest got burned, and they were logging what didn't get burned. And I think that really hit the community. Because obviously, you know, we tried so hard to protect that, like any of the bushland, and then we had that same thing with the wildlife was just going into any part that wasn't there. 

Takesa Frank 11:40 

And then to see, you know, trucks rolling, and just take tree after tree after tree. And when I say like bits were burned, it was like, they're still sticks today. And this was four years ago. And that I think, Well, for me, that was harder than the actual fires itself. And I think, like hard for a lot of the community because that's when, you know, you're really supposed to be coming together as a community. And, you know, debriefing about these fires and trying to move on, but we couldn't we were stuck in a state of destruction. And until this day, they've been logging every single day, except weekends and public holidays since those bushfires. 

Rae Johnston  12:20   

That's unbelievable. I'm so sorry to you. I would love to hear from you if you feel like life even has a chance to return to normal when that sort of destruction is continuing to happen.  

Takesa Frank  12:36   

I don't want to use the word normal. I think a new normal, maybe like life will never return to what it was before the bushfires both like in terms of environmentally, in terms of the community, there are still, like so many mental health issues in our small community, we're probably only a community of you know, less than 30 people we live on pretty large property is pretty spread out. And yeah, I would say the community isn't back to normal since those fires, relationships broke in the community during the fires and post fires. And, you know, at the moment, especially while we're talking, people are so scared for what's coming in the near future. 

Rae Johnston 13:22 

Understandably.

Felicity Anicich 13:23

Yeah. 

Takesa Frank 13:24

And to touch on, you know, the child kind of aspect of this. We have a few children that live in our community. And this is like two young, beautiful children, they're probably like under six, both of them. So [NSW] Forestry, sometimes burns the bush after they log it, and they started burning without telling these neighbours and these kids were like, distraught, because they like, you know, grew up with this trauma at such a young age of these fires. And then now they're also seeing the logging of our forests. 

Takesa Frank 13:58

And the mum of these two kids was talking to me and one of the young kids was like, 'Oh, we really want to do something about this. We want to, you know, somehow write a letter to, you know, our leaders'. But they said, 'well, we can't write it on paper', like these kids are just the sweetest, because that's obviously our trees. So they have this whole idea of like writing all these letters on the like leaves and then giving it to politicians. So I think it's really important to understand that kids are seeing this, and they really are impacted. And we kind of underestimate the power and the knowledge that young kids hold. And I think it's really important that we really lift their voices up when they want to share.  

Felicity Anicich  14:44   

Giving them that voice. Yeah.  

Rae Johnston  14:49   

UNICEF is always there before, during and after an emergency in more than 190 countries, making sure that every child lives in a clean and healthy and sustainable environment today. And in the years to come and even before disaster strikes, children need measures that reduce their risks of harm and support a resilient recovery as well. So we work on vulnerability mapping, multi hazard, early warning systems, comprehensive disaster management strategies, and post disaster needs. We also help governments build their capacity to strengthen social services and infrastructure to reduce the impact of disaster. Felicity, How is UNICEF's partnership with royal Farwest designed to help the community here? 

Felicity Anicich 15:39   

Our work has evolved from an initial partnership between Royal Far West and UNICEF, which initially started in 2020. And so the Royal Far West community recovery service has grown to respond to the increasing demand for support for children in over 60 communities impacted by cascading disasters across New South Wales and also in Queensland. So we've continued to work very closely together in our advocacy work highlighting the impact of disasters on children and young people. And really importantly, sharing what we learn to strengthen the child voice. But more recently, we've also worked with UNICEF and partnered with them to complete a floods needs assessment in Queensland, in 2022, and also for floods needs assessment in Fitzroy Crossing in 2023. 

Felicity Anicich 16:35

So our program that's developed is a really flexible and adaptable program. And what we know is that the needs of the community, for each and every community, their recovery process is really individual and different. So our program is able to be really flexible and adaptable, because we have a multidisciplinary health team, which consists of occupational therapists, speech pathologist, social workers, and psychologists. So we're able to draw on the expertise and the skills of this whole team to meet the needs of each community. 

Rae Johnston  17:10   

Yeah, it's a really multifaceted team you've pulled together there. So what led you to realizing that you needed to have that kind of multi-pronged approach?  

Felicity Anicich  17:19   

So as we work with each community, we've really taken the time to listen, and work really closely with them to work out what supports and services are able to help them in their recovery process, and needing to draw upon the skill sets and expertise of lots of different health professionals. 

Rae Johnston  17:41   

What has been a strength that you've seen in these communities, since disasters have happened within them? 

Felicity Anicich 17:49   

A huge strength that we've been able to see within the communities has been that relationship building. For many of the communities that we've been working with, since 2020, we have been able to go back into the communities multiple times. So some of the communities we've revisited 2, 3, 4 times back into the community. And we've really been able to see a lot of the skills that we've been implementing with the children with the educators and with their families, seeing that growth and development, and so that wraparound support around the children has really grown and we've seen that strength build. 

Rae Johnston  18:29   

Takesa, do you feel like your community is in a better place to deal with a future disaster? 

Takesa Frank  18:37   

Well, that's a good question. I guess, when I talk about our wider communities, so if we include more the town centre, rather than where I live quite remotely, I would say a lot of work has been done since the bush fires to help people be more better equipped. But when we look where we live, really, we're at the same point where we're going to be fighting fires without support, potentially. And I guess as because we have been through it before we do, I guess, have a bit more understanding. And as I might have been the last podcast actually, that we were talking about how already this season, we do have, you know, our cars set up with the water tanks and the pumps ready to go already. And so we are definitely on high alert. 

Takesa Frank 19:33

However, with climate change and any natural disaster, I don't think anyone can be fully equipped because we don't know what's going to come. We don't know how big these disasters are going to be. I guess we've touched [on] a lot about you know, bushfires. But another thing that we have been facing on the south coast are floods personally, so, to get home, we have to cross a river and it's the only way to get home and since the bush fires, we've been either stuck at home or out of home about 20 times. And so it's just like small things like that. 

Takesa Frank 20:09

And we wouldn't know what to do if a flood lasted for an extended period of time how we would get food in or out. And it's the same with the bushfires. Because [where] we do live, like, there are a couple of ways to get in. But because we are so remote, we can get, you know, blocked off from the local town and community. But I guess what we have learned from the last fire is that together with community, we can actually help fight these natural disasters and come together and work together to help each other out. 

Rae Johnston  20:43   

Fantastic. Thank you for sharing that with me. And thank you both for chatting with me. 

Felicity Anicich 20:47

Thank you.

Takesa Frank  20:48   

Awesome, thank you. 

Rae Johnston  20:49   

And that does bring this episode to a close. Thank you so much for listening. If there's any more information that you would like about anything we discussed in this episode, check out our show notes. You will find more info and links there. Subscribe wherever you get your podcasts. And while you're there, leave us a review and a rating. It helps other people find the show. Thanks again.