ABCD Gold: The Amazing Community-Driven Recovery of Bell, Clarence and Dargan

Auntie Sharon and Auntie Helen Riley perform a healing ceremony for residents a year after the Gospers Mountain bushfire devastated the community.

Aunty Sharon and Aunty Helen Riley perform a healing ceremony for residents a year after the Gospers Mountain bushfire devastated the community. (Image supplied)

Story by Hamish Dunlop

The community-driven post-fire recovery of Bell, Clarence and Dargan is extraordinary. Its success goes against what was believed to be possible. Find out how they did it here.

Key Points:

  • The 2019/20 fires hit the three communities of Bell, Clarence and Dargan hard. Per capita, they experienced the greatest loss of houses across the Mountains and were among the worst hit communities on the East Coast of Australia.
  • A group formed with representatives of all three communities as a way of responding to the devastation.

What is happening in Bell, Clarence and Dargan continues to prove that local communities can shape their own destinies. It is not a stretch to say that the model for this success is a gold standard in how community-driven recovery can take place.

To look through the latest Lyrebird Local (the Bell, Clarence and Dargan community newsletter) shows just how much has been achieved. In the last three months alone:

  • The Lyrebird Spring Market has been held in collaboration with Zigzag Railway.
  • The new community hall has progressed with the pouring of the slab and the installation of water tanks.
  • The three further sessions by fire consultant Tony Hawkins were completed.
  • The community came together for a successful Resilience Action Plan workshop.
  • UHF radio training sessions have also been held in conjunction with Lithgow City Council and Habitat for Humanity.

A snapshot from the latest edition of The Local Lyrebird newsletter that informs and celebrates the communities.

Clarence resident Jeannie Dare says the regionally funded markets have been wonderful in how they’ve connected people. “Many people in the community seemed to enjoy the markets,” she says. “One of the best things for me was running into people I’d seen in the village. We’d discover we were both Clarence residents, and immediately there was a lot of common ground.”

A survey conducted by Sydney University concluded this was the case for many of the people who attended. Seventy percent agreed the event enabled them to reconnect with people in their community and make new connections.

The meeting of hearts and minds

John Cornford at his home in Dargan after the 2019/20 fire. It survived while three surrounding houses burnt to the ground. (Photo: James Brickwood, Sydney Morning Herald)

The 2019/20 fires hit the three communities hard. Per capita, they experienced the greatest loss of houses across the Mountains and were among the worst hit communities on the East Coast of Australia. A group formed with representatives of all three communities as a way of responding to the devastation.

Kevin McCusker is a Dargan resident and president of ABCD Inc. He had a clear motivation for wanting the villages to join forces. “I saw people doing it hard, harder than it needed to be. Even though we were separate villages, we were all in the same fire. We experienced the same horrible things. When we started talking to each other, we realised we’d be stronger if we came together.”


Out of the desire for a coordinated response, the Association of Bell, Clarence and Dargan:  ABCD Inc. was born. Kat Boehringer, the founding president of ABCD Inc., says its success can be attributed to the people on the committee and their singular desire to improve the lives of their communities.

“Most of us didn’t know each other in the beginning, but we had people with a diverse range of complementary backgrounds. These included communications and engagement professionals, a schoolteacher, small business owners, committee members with experience working in government, and people with amazing life skills.”

Rotarian Phill Isaacs OAM, Mina Howard (former Rotary DG) , Lithgow Mayor Maree Statham, Hon Andrew Gee MP, Kat Boeringer (former ABCD Inc President), ABCD Committee members Kevin McClusker (President) and Susan Alexander.

 L to R: Rotarian Phill Isaacs OAM, Mina Howard (former Rotary DG) , Lithgow Mayor Maree Statham, the Hon Andrew Gee MP, Kat Boehringer (former ABCD Inc. President), ABCD Committee members Kevin McClusker (President) and Susan Alexander. (Photo: Michael Small)

The first year was spent setting up governance frameworks and communications. “There was no systematic way to share information and communicate,” Kat says. People living out here enjoy their privacy. Some people don’t have a mobile phone or internet. That’s when we rely on ‘sneaker net’,” she says: “A physical note, informal gathering, or a friendly visit”.

There was an existing Facebook page. It was followed by letter box drops and an email distribution list. The first edition of the The Local Lyrebird was published two years after the fires and the ABCD Inc. website was launched.

The fundamentals

Kevin says one of the most important lessons they have learnt is that community resilience relies on keeping people engaged. “You need an association that regularly touches base with as many people as possible. What’s critical though is that it’s in a way that works for them.

“We ask questions like: Are you fire ready and have you got everything you need? If you want to find out how to make your property more fire resistant, you can attend this workshop, watch these videos online, or get assistance developing a bushfire plan.”

ABCD Inc branded coffee mugs and ABCD Inc committee member Cathy MacNamara

ABCD Inc. branded coffee mugs and ABCD Inc. committee member Cathy MacNamara fundraising at one of the markets (Images supplied)

Kat explains this strategy needs to be complemented by developing community cohesion. This is where community halls, markets, and other social events come into their own.

“Community resilience is underpinned by communication and connection,” she says. “Without this, messages about preparedness can fail to land. A cohesive community also develops the power of foresight. It’s not just when the fire is on your doorstep that you realise you need to be prepared.”

Rotary magic

After the first year, the committee looked outward to build relationships and secure services and funding in a coordinated way. “We were surprised that our application for Black Summer funding got rejected,” Kat says. “Despite the widespread devastation and need, we hadn’t earned our stripes at that stage.”

The first lifeline came from Rotary. Two substantial grants were secured by Mina Howard, Rotary’s District Governor at the time and Leura Sunrise Rotarian Phill Isaacs OAM. This is funding the shell of the new community hall, as well as water tanks, the toilets and the hall kitchen.

A $400,000 grant auspiced by Lithgow Council will enable the fit out of the building to be completed. “ABCD Inc. and Lithgow Council have developed an excellent working relationship,” Kevin says. “It’s a situation where we’re co-managing the build.”

Construction has begun on the ABCD Inc community hall.

Construction has begun on the ABCD Inc. community hall. (Image supplied)

“The hall is one of the central pillars of our recovery strategy,” Kat continues. “People from the villages can come together and get to know their neighbours. For example, we can hold our annual bushfire healing ceremony there. We can come to socialise too, and for workshops and events. As a post-emergency and recovery hub, it’ll be solar equipped with water tanks, kitchen facilities and communications technology such as satellite WiFi.”

Bushfire preparedness

Building on its success, ABCD Inc. was able to secure a grant from the Disaster Risk Reduction Fund (DRRF). This money is being used to finance a range of bushfire preparedness activities. These include UHF radio training, bushfire consultant sessions, a multi-pronged communications platform and support for vulnerable people. Kevin says having a bushfire consultant come in has been the centrepiece of their bushfire preparedness activities.

“People in the community volunteered to have their house assessed by fire consultant Tony Hawkins. We advertised this and other people joined as observers. Tony talked about what people could practically do to make their homes more fire resistant. The great thing was people started thinking about their own homes. We had great feedback that people were talking to their neighbours and comparing notes. It’s something that’s practical,” Kevin says, “The residents have embraced it.”

Tony Hawkins talking to residents at the bushfire preparedness workshops.

Tony Hawkins talking to residents at the bushfire preparedness workshops. (Image supplied)

“They organised for there to be a videographer at all the sessions. The Disaster Risk Reduction Fund (DRRF) money has paid for the editing of that footage. There are going to be a series of videos available online for anyone who wants to see firsthand how to make their house more fire resistant, especially against ember attack.” Resilient Villages has also supported ABCD Inc. events by providing catering and a facilitator.

The establishment of a Resilience Action Plan (RAP) has been supported by DRRF funding as well. Kevin is excited about its development. A community workshop was held in November last year to further the plan. It was attended by residents and experts from organisations including the local and area RFS and Lithgow Council.

ABCD Inc Vice President, Dargan resident Karen Cody presenting at the Resilience Action Plan workshop

ABCD Inc. Vice President, Dargan resident Karen Cody presenting at the Resilience Action Plan workshop (Image supplied)

“The workshop was designed to generate a collective understanding of our risk of bushfire and to identify and prioritise ABCD Inc.’s next round of activities,” Kevin says. “For example, supplying new residents with a bushfire welcome pack.”

A RAP report provides a way for the communities to connect into government organisations and funding bodies. “It‘s something that enables us to potentially have input into councils’ bushfire management plans,” he says. “A place where community knowledge and needs meet with organisational expertise.”

People make the world go round

At the heart of this story are enormously generous, highly motivated, skilled people. Without them, there would be no local consultation, no local voice and no local understanding that addresses the hearts and minds of the communities. However, without communities to service and a willingness among residents, very little would have been realised.

“We’re incredible proud of what we’ve achieved,” Kat says. “Our communities have come together and we’re more connected and more bushfire prepared than we’ve ever been.” Kevin concludes, “It’s exciting to see how our community’s capacity to prepare, respond and recover from disaster is growing. The community hall will be an amazing resource for everyone and there are more exciting initiatives to come.”

About the people

ABCD Inc. committee L to R Mark Turl, Karen Cody, Kevin McCusker, Karen Jones, Jeannie Dare, Alice Reti-Steel, Jim Burgess and Cathy MacNamara

Current ABCD Inc. committee L to R Mark Turl, Karen Cody, Kevin McCusker, Karen Jones, Jeannie Dare, Alice Reti-Steel, Jim Burgess and Cathy MacNamara

L: Susan Alexander (former ABCD Inc. secretary) R: Kat Boehringer (former ABCD Inc. president) (Images supplied)

People power

The committee that formed ABCD Inc. included Kat Boehringer (President), Kevin McCusker (Treasurer), Susan Alexander (Secretary), Karen Cody (Vice President), Cathy MacNamara, Morgan Boehringer, Eva and Sandy Benson. Kat and Susan recently stepped down from their positions and Kevin has become president.

New committee members include Mark Turl from Bell and Karen Jones, Jeannie Dare and Alice Reti-Steel from Clarence. Jim Burgess who is on the hall sub-committee will continue to be an ex-officio committee member. Kevin says that Kat and Susan can’t be thanked enough for their time and energy, and is pleased that they remain actively involved in the community, including with the local RFS brigade and communications sub-committee.

Kat, Karen Jones and Cathy are all communications and marketing professionals. This capacity was key to developing and maintaining all the communications infrastructure including The Lyrebird Local, organising markets and events, and advocating and fundraising for the new community hall. Cathy has also played a key role in facilitating people to tell their personal stories. Karen and Kevin have been the driving force behind the bushfire preparedness activities including workshops, bushfire consulting and the RAP, along with Susan, who is leading a community phone tree initiative. 

Mina Howard and Phill Isaacs OAM were the first people to align with ABCD Inc.’s vision. Phill has also played a key role in getting approvals and building certificates for the hall. “Phill is a true powerhouse and a genuinely caring and generous individual,” Kat says. “He’s made a massive contribution.” Karen Jones’ husband Dennis, an engineer by trade, is project managing the hall build. Regional funding bodies, community service organisations and the state Disaster Risk Reduction Fund have made invaluable contributions.

Lithgow Council has been supportive though grant management and retaining the land on which the hall is being built. Blue Mountains City Council has also contributed funding to post-fire planting initiatives in Bell. Resilient Villages and the Foundation for Regional and Rural Renewal (FRRR) have made important contributions, along with State and Federal MPs representing the two LGAs, who have all lent their support in different ways.

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This story has been produced as part of a Bioregional Collaboration for Planetary Health and is supported by the Disaster Risk Reduction Fund (DRRF). The DRRF is jointly funded by the Australian and New South Wales governments.

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About Hamish Dunlop

Hamish Dunlop is a writer, visual artist and environmentalist. During his career he has worked in communications, as an academic at UNSW and ACU and more recently in the conservation space. He is currently completing a Diploma in Conservation and Ecosystems Management. He lives on the bush in Medlow Bath and is a passionate bush walker, gardener and cold-water enthusiast.

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