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Handy hints on what to do when your botanic garden burns down

Handy hints on what to do when your botanic garden burns down

Michael Anlezark, Manager, Eurobodalla Regional Botanic Garden

On 30 December 2019, bushfires on the New South Wales South Coast threatened local communities. At Eurobodalla Regional Botanic Garden we knew that there was serious potential for fire to impact the garden within the next couple of days. We worked frantically to do what we could to improve the chances for the garden and many of its buildings. Outdoor furniture at the new café was quickly brought inside and the steel shutters were pulled down over the doors and windows of the recently renovated visitor centre. In the nursery precinct anything combustible was removed, gutters were given another clean and areas were swept clear of leaves. At the last minute, computers, files and art works from offices were relocated into the new herbarium, the building most likely to survive. Books, the laptop and important files were loaded into the work vehicle. Staff left and I had one last look around, took some final photos of our freshly redeveloped visitor centre, locked the gate, and crossed my fingers. The very next day, just after 7.30 am, New Year’s Eve, intense fire crossed the Princes Highway and roared through the garden. The intensity and speed of the fire was shocking and in less than 30 minutes, the entire site was engulfed — flora, fauna and infrastructure would never be the same again.

Flora, fauna and infrastructure would never be the same again.

In no time at all we had lost every bridge, walkway and retaining wall, kilometres of path and garden edging, a residence, workshops, depots, vehicles, every tool, gazebo and rotunda and most of our historical records. There was significant damage to play equipment, irrigation systems and nursery infrastructure, picnic and BBQ facilities and, worst of all, the majority of our wildlife was now gone. Against all odds and without fire fighters our freshly upgraded visitor centre, new herbarium building and much of our upgraded nursery complex survived reasonably intact. This gave us hope and a starting point for recovery.

This terrible experience and the ongoing implications have given us unique insights into recovery and resilience that may help others, and with this in mind I offer the following top 10 handy hints on what to do when your botanic garden burns down.

1. Cry a lot while still focussing on priorities You are allowed to be upset considering how much work has been put into making your botanic garden so great. We cried bucket loads, seemingly at every opportunity and, with more thought, should have considered harvesting tears to top up half-empty rainwater tanks! It is essential to get focussed and quickly produce a site assessment and emergency action plan and to implement this regardless of frequently blurred vision. You will find this plan vital in helping to stay on track and not be overwhelmed by the mammoth task ahead.

2. Be proactive and creative when you have no electricity, water or phones Proceed to your nearest hardware retailer as quickly as possible and join a queue to obtain the largest generator you can find. You may have to visit the store several times depending on local demand, which will likely be high. To reduce queueing times, you might consider including a section in future management plans on cultivating friendships with hardware staff prior to disasters. Jerry cans and fuel will also very quickly be in high demand so make sure you get what you need to run the generator and any surviving work vehicle. Encourage staff to bring in their own drinking water and buckets to assist with toilet flushing. Install waterless urinals in any future upgrade or development. Become your own IT department and use mobile phones to hot-spot laptops. You may have to position your mobile phone on top of an upturned bucket, propping open a door, to maximise your signal.

3. Look after your precious survivors This means plants and animals. Utilise your local council’s environment team to help set up feeding and watering stations for birds and animals and stay in contact with your local WIRES group. Nurture any plants that reshoot, as they will be the basis of your new living collection. Contact other botanic gardens in your state or network and alert them to the fact you might need help from them down the track. Be prepared for heartbreak and more losses post-fire and refer back to ‘Cry a lot while still focussing on priorities’ whenever necessary. Be sure to include you, your staff and volunteers in the precious survivor category and try to look after each other.

4. Be thankful your weed and pest problems are solved (for now) Hooray, no more weeds, rabbits and bugs. Be sure not to celebrate too much or throw out your herbicides and pest control preparations. Be mentally and physically prepared to battle with new weeds on a scale you never thought possible. Focus on your most public areas first and heed the bush regenerator’s rule ‘work from good to bad’. Remember whatever eucalypt and acacia seedlings you leave in now will undoubtedly become a curse for all that come after. Take this opportunity to replace all of your tired and ineffective destroyed fencing with shiny new ones fit for purpose.

5. Mulch, mulch and more mulch

Your site will now be covered in hundreds of dangerous, unstable, and burnt-out trees. These trees will need to be removed urgently so that staff and volunteers can work safely throughout your site. Everyone will be sad that so many trees need to be cut down while at the same time wanting to dance about drunk on the seemingly unlimited supply of the finest quality mulch. You will need as much mulch as you can get, and spread as quickly as humanly possible, to protect your now very denuded and vulnerable garden beds. Remember that wood chip mulch in garden beds around your buildings will catch fire so replace it with something much safer — we used recycled crushed brick.

6. Keeping a hundred volunteers busy when they can’t work at your botanic garden After a fire everyone will be chomping at the bit to get in and help in your recovery; however, your site will still be dangerous so it may be best to phase in selected volunteers for critical work only.

Although the workload may seem overwhelming, without your full contingent of volunteers it will be easier to manage smaller teams doing emergency recovery, both physically and emotionally. Think of ways your volunteers can help without being on site. Like us, you may have lots of surviving plants in your nursery that you are unable to care for properly because of your damaged and lost infrastructure.

Botanic garden Manager Michael Anlezark and Council General Manager Dr Catherine Dale handing out foster boxes. Photo: Michael Anlezark.

You can develop a ‘foster a box’ program like we did and allow your volunteers to come in and take boxes of plants home so that they can care for them properly until your infrastructure is back on track. There is a slight risk that you may discover some of your volunteers actually have black thumbs and their charges may be keener to take their chances back on site. We managed to foster out around 4,500 plants and the car park pickup day gave our volunteers a chance to get a glimpse of the site and see that all was not lost. With your gates locked the community will be desperate to find out what is happening in their garden so your Friends group can play a key role in getting updated information out there.

7. Look at your landscape in a completely new light You will now have a rare opportunity to completely redesign your entire garden display, reinstate the things that worked or ditch the things that didn’t. You might decide that you like seeing most of your 100 acres from just about anywhere or that previously unseen highway now seems to bring a special vibrancy right into the heart of your once green haven. Now is the time to develop new thematic and interpretation plans (particularly as just about every sign you had is now melted, rusted or just not there anymore). Photo: Michael Anlezark.

This will be very daunting so don’t rush into it, allow at least six months to re-establish infrastructure and facilities while keeping an eye on natural regrowth and regeneration.

8. Turn misery into magic Demolish that ugly and now burnt-out old toilet block and replace it with a contemporary architectural masterpiece with matching picnic shelters, gazebos, pavilions, rotundas and pergolas. Be sure to develop a good relationship with your insurance company and be warned that the insurance term ‘betterment’ actually means ‘computer says no’. Before talking to the insurance company practise saying

it will not be better, just different it is exactly the same size, just taller the new materials are not better; they will just stop it from burning down again.

Sole surviving walkway dumped and broken after a flood. the following:

Walkway and gully just two weeks before. Photo: Michael Anlezark.

If everything goes exceptionally well, you might see new facilities being started in as little as 12 months’ time. In the meantime, if you advise your insurance company that your staff and volunteers are getting headaches from petrol fumes and lawnmowers stored in the lunchroom, a shipping container or two may turn up as quick as a flash.

9. Be patient and lower your expectations, but not your standards It will not be easy to rebuild your botanic garden in the time frame you would like; after all, it may have taken at least 30 years to get it to where it was before the fire. You will need to ensure that you set achievable gaols, resist offers of unhelpful help and make sure that everything you rebuild or replace is better than before. Improve standards by doing things like replacing those old burnt timber frames in bridges and platforms with steel as this means if your botanic garden burns down again you will have less to worry about.

10.It’s not the end of the world

If your botanic garden burns down it is not the end of the world and you can now make a much better one.

If you take on board the handy hints presented here, your organisation, Friends and community will know that you and your team are doing the best they can. They will appreciate your efforts and want to celebrate every achievement and milestone with you.

Visitor centre 10 months after the fire. Photo: Michael Anlezark.

As soon as they are allowed to do so your community will flock back to your botanic garden and continue to offer their help and support at every opportunity and in whatever way they can. Embrace your community and let them embrace you (from a 1.5 m-safe distance).

Last of all, I hope you have found these handy hints helpful and recommend you look out for the next in the series: Handy hints on what to do when your botanic garden gets washed away in a flood.