Village community fire case study: Ingenia / Lake Conjola

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Across the full 20 days, 18 December 2019 to 6 January 2020, land lease and park operator Ingenia had 10 properties in fire zones rated ‘catastrophic’, mainly on the NSW South Coast.

They had well-established fire plans and policies but the human element – and unpredictability of fire – don’t always play to plan.

We asked Ingenia COO, Nikki Fisher (pictured), to give some insights so we all can adjust our vision of the challenges that may be faced with fire gripping a community.

Nikki concentrated her comments on Lake Conjola where 70 homes were lost, including two at Ingenia’s land lease community.

Lake Conjola is on the coast at the end of an 8km single lane road – one way in and one way out – and highly populated on both sides of the road.

While fire had been in the vicinity from 18 December, the community was on a ‘watch and act’ alert through to 31 December, when things changed.

The emergency notice moved to ‘be prepared to seek shelter’ and 10 minutes later, the fire suddenly arrived. It jumped a 5km containment line and collected 68 houses as it came down the single road, creating traffic mayhem

Ingenia’s community had 112 residents, all who had been strongly advised to evacuate well ahead of the event. However, on 31 December 73 residents had chosen to stay across 50 homes. In addition, there were 800 people in the holiday park.

Nikki Fisher had assembled her Emergency Management, her Operations team, her Health Safety team, her Asset Management team and her Internal Communications team in Brisbane to coordinate events with her ground teams. This external resource was vital because of the loss of power and communication when the fire hit.

They had already agreed with NSW Fire Emergency Control that in the event of fire those residents who want to would go to the beach or Ingenia’s community centre – which most did.

For the first 90 minutes of the fire, no Rural Fire Service personnel could make it to the community, with staff dealing with the fire and ember attacks. Aerial bombing was only available in the last two hours of the fire.

Just two Ingenia homes were lost, thanks to the Ingenia staff (who had their own homes to worry about) and local volunteers.

From Brisbane, Nikki and her team went into recovery action. This included negotiating with Emergency Control for a police escort through closed roads to deliver generators and satellite phones.

Emergency Control also sent in ambulances eight times in one day to support door knocks checking on residents.

The Brisbane Internal Communications team sent out 10,000 emails across about eight days to families and friends keeping them informed, plus social media.

Once communications were regained, Ingenia engaged trauma counsellors by phone for residents and staff – a process that is ongoing with onsite counselling.

On Australia Day, Ingenia is staging a ‘thank you’ event for the local community and Emergency Services.

Nikki’s summary: she is thankful there was no injuries or loss of life; there can’t be enough praise for Emergency Services; Ingenia’s staff excelled, working straight through the crisis and Ingenia’s planning and systems worked, especially their property management system ‘NewBook’.

In a wrap up note, Ingenia notified the ASX that it expects to take a $2 million hit to revenue in the short term because of delayed new sales and recovery. However, they have insurance to cover fire and profits so the hit may not be that great in the medium term.