Slow burn: Jill Miller on ongoing risk and re. . .

Slow burn: Jill Miller on ongoing risk and resilience in an extreme climate

By .
Published on the VCOSS Voice on 18 February 2014.

Jill Miller experienced the devastating 2006 bushfires in the Grampians on two levels: with her own property burnt through and, as Chief Executive of Grampians Community Health, providing support to many affected by their experiences and losses.

You can read her compelling account, from the Insight magazine Emergency Management edition. But the story is far from over and the Grampians region faces continuing risks in an extreme climate.

Early in January, Jill scheduled a planning day for her staff. She distributed a scenario for them to consider:

We’ve got a wildfire started from lightning 17 km northwest of Halls Gap, with strong north westerly winds coming in, a very hot day, suspected change coming through late in the evening with south-westerlies that could potentially take the fire out across the Western Highway.

A few days later, that’s pretty much what happened, sparking a bushfire that burnt through 55,000 hectares of land. The CFA reported it was so intense it “created its own weather“, triggering lightning and spot fires, destroying houses, bushland and farmlands, and threatening local towns and properties for 10 days and nights.

The fire is now contained, but it burns on within the national park and the community remains alert – it really won’t be over till significant rain falls.

In this Q&A below, Jill talks about how her organisation and the wider community manage with ongoing risks to face and resilience to build.


What’s it meant for the community to again be hit by a major bushfire, having undergone such devastating losses in 2006?

Actually we’re had more events than that. In fact, every January since the 2006 bushfires, which themselves followed 13 years of drought, the community has been hit by natural disasters of varying proportions – severe floods (2011), a huge locust plague (2012), another fire (2009), landslides (2011 – 198 in the Grampians alone, bridges and roads destroyed). Even – believe it or not – cicadas (2007) which invaded the area in such large numbers that they drove away tourists with their `singing‘. People in tents and caravans, or anyone else sitting outside, couldn’t hear what anybody else was saying and couldn’t get the sound out of their own heads. It was quite dramatic.

We also had the only Code Red Day (2010) declared so tourists left again and now fire and evacuations (2014). Parks Victoria had just finally finished getting Zumstein’s and Mackenzie Falls open (after flood damage) – state of the art facilities that have all been burnt out.

This time Halls Gap and Pomonal were spared, but they were evacuated and had seven days of fires going back and forth – the smell, the look, the fear of it all. Of course that’s better than losing lives or property, but it also has a strong psychosocial impact, with people getting fired up for action but not getting the chance to discharge the adrenalin as you do when the fire actually goes through. When the fire burnt through our properly in 2006, I actually felt quite relaxed the day after (luckily no-one was hurt in our area and we managed to save the house and all our farm animals). I knew I was surrounded by burnt ground so I was safe if the fire turned back, whereas this time many people were at risk for seven days – where you don’t feel safe, have to sleep in shifts, you’re waiting and waiting, preparing and re-preparing. There’s also that relief when the wind changes direction, only to realise it means someone else is now in danger. That adds another dimension to how people are feeling.

Since 2006 only three small sections of the Grampians have not been burnt by bushfires. We had the Victoria Range fires last year, the 2006 fires, and now this one which has taken out northern end of the park. That’s had a huge impact on people and what they love about living in the area – a massive impact on animals and on the ecology of the park.

What role does Grampians Community Health play in the response and recovery?

The Northern Grampians Shire is looking at the practical issues – roads, fences, infrastructure, etc and the impact on business. The rapid response team – forensic police, State Government and Shire – comes in to assess houses lost and other impacts. Our counsellors go out with them, or out on our own, to see who might be needing support, particularly for psychosocial needs, but also financial counselling or other support. We give out early information on to help normalise the physical and emotional feelings everyone is experiencing.

We have also set up a recovery hub, at our premises in Stawell, with the two local government areas (LGAs) and the Department of Human Services (DHS), where we are debriefing some people, normalising feelings and picking up referrals for short or longer term support, knowing some people might be with us for 18 months or more.

We’ve done a lot of public meetings across the region, in partnership with the LGAs, Country Fire Authority (CFA) and Parks Victoria. Our role is to talk about what the impact will be on people: the psychosocial side, explaining feelings, including that they might be feeling very differently to others, be on different journeys, and that that’s normal too, and giving tips on managing anger, fatigue and stress.

What advice do you offer people about what they may be experiencing?

A colleague came up with an interesting insight: that some people recover from a bushfire like grass trees do – they send up green shoots almost the day after. Others are like eucalypts, it takes longer. You can add to that that some of the grass trees might fall over a few months later, and that’s okay – it’s all part of the journey, 6, 12, 18 months out.

Like any other counselling we do, every event is totally different but we’re pitching similar messages about coping with physical and psychosocial stress: about the effect trauma has on your body, that feeling like you can’t make any decisions or are walking in circles is all normal, that you’re not sick because you’re having intense heart palpitations or incapable of making decisions anymore. In the early stages, we talk about anger being a normal feeling for some but encourage them to try not to take it out on their family, or firefighters, or their dog – to not say something you may regret later; ‘When you feel the anger rising, walk away, then come back later to finish the conversation when your anger has died down.’

We explain how feeling nauseous from the adrenalin rushes makes thinking about or eating food off-putting because of the butterflies in the stomach : ‘But you need nutrition when you are stressed, so maybe “drink your nutrition” as smoothies for a couple of days.’ We hand out easy recipes for that too.

We talk about the kids – the littlies get looked after in particular ways but can have ‘tummy migraines’ or be reacting to their parents fear, so normalising their life with their routines and care is important. Adolescents tap into what adults are experiencing but can also understand the concepts we are talking about to the adults – so we advise that it’s good include them in thinking and decisions. It’s the in-between ones who are often at risk, they get overlooked. We try to provide some creative arts or therapeutic drumming for them or support for the teachers.

With the community we explain that some will be feeling teary, or totally lethargic; others will be wired. And that’s all normal too – different people have different journeys – so we should try to not to judge someone else’s reactions or journey: ‘You don’t know someone’s back story, there could be something for them in the past – to do with fire or other events in their lives – that may make them react differently to how you are.’

With an ongoing emergency like bushfires that continue to burn, it’s important to be able to manage anxiety over time. We suggest that when people are feeling okay, they should write down things that they love doing and things that they need to do and put the list on the fridge; then when you’re feeling a bit overwhelmed, force yourself to do something on that list. Often when we’re worried we can’t think of what we need to do or what we might like to do.

We actively talk about not isolating and keeping talking to others, and to focus on vulnerable people who are less likely to seek support. For example, during the 13 year drought we ran “Pix in the Stix”, showing movies on silos all around the Wimmera/ Mallee, working in partnership with the local health providers. The whole idea was to have something unusual enough to get men to come out and join their community rather than isolate, either alone or with their families. It worked a treat: they’d be standing around talking, eating and someone would offer a blood pressure test, and that in many cases started a connection and longer-term engagement for them.

For now, we are in a strange space in the region with an active fire still going and the threat ever-present but changing. So we are really doing early intervention for some people, relief centres for others, recovery centres for others and early outreach for businesses – all at the same time.

Has Victoria got better at managing disasters after such overwhelming experiences over the past decade?

I think we are all a lot more practised, including the State Government. I also think the community is far more realistic now about what can be achieved. It’s pretty obvious that the CFA can’t protect everyone’s house now; really you may be on your own so it’s up to your own preparations, and people are far more aware of that now.

Locally, I worry about getting the accommodation businesses more up to speed so they can get information to tourists who are staying with them about where to go and what to do in a crisis, early enough for them to be able to take action. What did work this time, which is new from 2009, was State Emergency Management scanned to see what mobile phones were in area that ‘shouldn’t be’, that is tourists, so those numbers got a text a day before everyone else to say they should evacuate.

I don’t want to criticise any of the responses to the 2009 Victorian Bushfires because it was just such a massive event and all sorts of norms just blew out of the window – people who were really well prepared still had tragic losses – and responding to it was like mobilising an army for the very first time for war.

Where I hope we have learnt is we saw incredibly comprehensive case management rolled out in 2009, but the layers of bureaucracy that went with it made the role very difficult. However, the scale of the response then meant they had to bring in external case managers who didn’t know the area they were in well and local people did not see them as understanding their needs. I think we’re better off, in situations like the 2006 & 2009 Grampians bushfires or what we experienced last month, to bring in extra staff to back-end our work because we’re the people who are going to be here for 18 months or more with the community. We’re better off doing the community development work too and the case work, and that way the extra staff could help us with our normal work.

For instance, in 2006, we lost the opportunity to tender for funding for our youth program because we were up to our necks in bushfire response work (400 new clients registered in the January), and we have never had the opportunity back. It would have been great to have brought in people who could keep the normal mechanisms of an agency going, write up policies, apply for funding, collating data etc, so our people can be on the frontline.

How can others help?

We’ve really tried hard to discourage people from to donating material goods, because it puts a massive load on agencies to have to sort, store and distribute and often, sadly, we get things that aren’t in a suitable condition. It is not what people affected by the fires want either. So it’s better to give a Target voucher or similar if you want to help.

Being available for friends in crisis is still the best way to support, occasionally doing something practical too like the washing or taking someone out of the scene helps enormously.

How do you personally manage?

The boot of my car has stored the things I hold dear from the first Friday of this fire, that’s now more than three weeks ago. While the fires are still burning in the national park, most people are in that same situation: remaining alert, watching weather forecasts, where the lightning strikes are, what the winds will be like etc.

This time, in the week leading up to the fire, my partner was in Sydney so I had to prepare our house by myself. In between work relief meetings, getting rosters up, printing material, planning and visiting others, I was mowing, mowing, mowing to get our 20 acres down as close to ground as possible – carrying out our fire plan. It’s an issue for all staff: we often have members of the team in here working to support others who are affected when their own homes are out there in vulnerable situations. We do a lot of peer and staff debriefing throughout the event and after to make sure everyone is OK – listening to our own advice too, to not judge others.

For myself, I love the bush, and we have a bath deck that looks out to the east where moon rises on a clear night. I put nice herbal essences into that to relax. I stay connected to my family and friends. One additional stress for me this time was having other family members at risk. In 2006, only one of our children and their family were around us in the fire zone and we knew they were safe in Stawell. This time my two daughters have returned to live in the area; one owns the general store in Pomonal and that needed to stay open as long as possible – not for business reasons, but to provide cool drinks and petrol for Pomonal CFA and people who were out fighting the fires. She stayed near the fire till quite late on a bad day. My other daughter and grandbaby had evacuated to Ballarat so I knew they were safe, but she had left her husband and house not knowing what she would return to, as I had to too, so that I could carry out my role. That adds an extra layer I didn’t have in the 2006 fires.

I now have a very different, deeper sense of nature. When you’re sad you can use the natural world as a great reference point – it’s so big, powerful, timeless and wonderful, so your own issues can seem small by comparison, and that can be a real comfort. The flipside, which I knew was there but now understand more than before, is that it can also be terrifying and absolutely awesome.

What resources do you tap into?

The sites we all watch – before, during and after the fires – include SES, CFA, Weatherzone Lightning, Bureau of Meteorology, CFA radio and others to try and drill down for the real forecasts and predictions. This is both personal and professional.

There is much about trauma written now, as well as the work we have always intuitively done in the past. We have written our own material for early information based on research from many sources, mainly to package it into easy to read sheets and booklets. We also hand out a business card size pamphlet with after hours and during hours numbers.

GCH listens into the experiences of other organisations and people, and we run training sessions throughout the year for our staff based on both experiences and research. Throughout the year we also do table top exercises around disaster planning with scenarios and bring in or outsource training for staff. Training incudes de-escalation & dealing with difficult situations, brief intervention, early intervention, critical incident stress debriefing and (disaster expert) Rob Gordon’s work.

Two good resources:

Surviving Traumatic Grief Vol 2 for families – published  jointly by EACH (Community Health) and Sue Evans fund for Families.

Surviving Traumatic Grief: when loved ones die in a disaster – published  by Red Cross, Sue Evans find for Families, and the Australian Centre for Grief and Bereavement