Trauma and recovery: five years after the 200. . .

Trauma and recovery: five years after the 2009 Victorian Bushfires

By Emma King.
Published on the VCOSS Voice on 6 February 2014.

insight_cover_issue_5-100x141“The bushfires of Black Saturday, 7 February 2009, caused the death of 173 people. Black Saturday wrote itself into Victoria’s history with record-breaking weather conditions and bushfires of a scale and ferocity that tested human endurance. The lives of many Victorians were changed forever, and many showed they are capable of deeds of great courage and compassion. Although some communities were physically destroyed, their members also displayed ingenuity, strength and resolve in the face of this calamity. There was also widespread devastation of considerable areas of the scenic forests and woodlands that form part of Victoria’s natural heritage….

…We acknowledge the losses—of family, friends, fellow citizens, homes, gardens, animals, and the many other things that people hold dear. We have seen the pain people have endured and continue to bear, and we know it will be a long road to full recovery for many. Bushfire is an intrinsic part of Victoria’s landscape, and if time dims our memory we risk repeating the mistakes of the past. We need to learn from the experiences of Black Saturday and improve the way we prepare for and respond to bushfires.” From the opening of the 2009 Victorian Bushfires Royal Commision: Final Report, published July 2010.

Across the state this weekend, we will be marking five years since the 2009 Victorian Bushfires – one of the worst natural disasters ever to hit Australia.

It’s important for us to look back – to remember and honour those who experienced terrible loss, and also to make sure we have learned the lessons such a disaster can deliver.

But anniversaries can also be difficult for people impacted by a natural disaster or traumatic event. While, five years on, many lives are settling into a new normal, there remains the ache of loss, and some in our midst will be re-traumatised by the commemorations. For people who have experienced loss in other ways – from war service to other natural disasters – the attention and focus on anniversaries such as this can trigger their own traumatic responses.

Among those who will be affected are community sector workers – the staff from many of VCOSS’s member organisations – who are in the frontline in disasters and, often in such events, not only deal with the trauma of others but experience it themselves.

Recovery is different for every person and for every community. For some, five years is a long time from the fires; for others recovery is slower and memories remain raw. Everyone has a different way of coping and learning to live with the loss they have suffered.

We have seen tremendous recovery since 2009: the combined result of formal services and support as well as actions taken by individuals and communities to help themselves and each other.  But we know many in our midst are still hurting and, with yet another outbreak of bushfires in Victoria in January, that many others remain at risk of extreme climate events.

VCOSS will continue to work with the community sector and government to look at where that risk falls most heavily, and what needs to be done to ensure we are as safe as possible and can recover as well as we can.

Guide to resources

There are many resources available for those wanting to learn more about the impact of the 2009 Victorian Bushfires and also for access to personal support. They include:

  • EACH has a dedicated website for people affected by the 2009 Bushfires – Black Saturday and Beyond. The website encourages people to share their stories, and provides a range of information and resources.
  • The Salvation Army’s Still Standing is an interactive website and online film for people affected by natural disasters, with advice from experts, such as medical practitioners who specialise in disaster recovery, and a section on helping children to understand and cope in hard times. There is also the opportunity for people to tell their own stories through submitting them to the website.
  • Red Cross has a range of information and resources to help people understand what might be experienced when they are recovering from an emergency and what they to do to help themselves. Red Cross also have a range of resources for agencies working with people who have been impacted by an emergency.
  • The Victorian Government’s Bushfire Recovery Services Guide provides information on a wide range government and non-government services that can help in ongoing rebuilding and recovery for people impacted by the 2009 bushfires.
  • In addition, the Victorian Government’s Recovery website offers information and advice to people affected by recent emergency events.


The State Government is marking the fifth anniversary with an afternoon tea, to which all Victorians are invited. The event will feature photo displays, music by bushfire-affected communities and activities for children.

Sunday, 9 February 2014, 2pm-4pm
Treetops, Melbourne Museum
11 Nicholson St, Carlton, Victoria

Local communities impacted by the 2009 Bushfires will be holding their own remembrance events at a variety of locations across the state.


See also many relevant articles in the Emergency management: trauma and resilience of VCOSS’s Insight magazine, which looked at the impact of bushfires, floods and other disasters in Victoria, particularly on vulnerable groups in the community.


Aftershock: the ongoing impact of disasters: VCOSS Deputy Director Carolyn Atkins

Vox Pop: what was the biggest challenge, what worked best, and what has to be done differently?

The two of us: responding to the 2009 Victorian Bushfires – David Hall and Alison Dyson, Berry Street, Alexandra.

A life with trauma: Ruth Wraith, disaster expert, former Head of the Department of Child Psychotherapy at Melbourne’s Royal Children’s Hospital.

Wild Fires: Jill Miller, Chief Executive Officer of Grampians Community Health

What works: the Festival of Healthy Living

In the spotlight: media and disasters: Dr Denis Muller, Visiting Fellow in the Centre for Public Policy and at the Centre for Applied Philosophy and Public Ethics at the University of Melbourne

Resilience: the right ingredients: Penelope Hawe, author of Community recovery after the February 2009 bushfires.