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Ten years on from the Victorian Bushfires

Andrew Coghlan, National Manager of our Emergency Services Program, reflects on the tragic 2009 Victorian Bushfires.

I will never forget the catastrophic bushfires of February 2009 – especially that dreadful first day. The oppressive heat, the blood red sun, the sky a darkened orange and the roar of wind. 

It quickly became clear that the fires were one of the most devastating in Australia’s history. Hundreds of lives were lost and thousands changed forever.

A decade on, Australians are paying respect to those who lost their lives, and those who survived and have rebuilt their homes and communities. We also acknowledge and pay respect to those who helped in the days, weeks, months and years that followed.

Back in 2009, the nation faced the enormity of the disaster on people’s lives and livelihoods. In the months and years that followed what’s clear is the ways in which the challenge was met through the community bonds of generosity, unity, local leadership and initiative.

People donated $380 million in support of those affected. Red Cross and the Victorian Government established the independent Victorian Bushfire Appeal Fund Panel to distribute funds. Every single cent and accrued interest went to helping affected individuals and families, whether it was support for orphaned children, helping rebuild homes, or community determined recovery initiatives.

Children donated treasured toys and pocket money alongside corporate Australia who provided generous financial donations and expertise. The community spirit was extraordinary, from the emergency service teams tackling the fires, to the individuals and organisations supporting people at evacuation and relief centres, through to the long-term recovery effort.

Governments and politicians unified in support of affected communities, working together to ensure the best outcomes for those impacted. The resilience of those who had to endure the long-term impact of Black Saturday was humbling.

The community rallied and took on the leadership roles required to get things going. These were the people who chaired local committees, energised the working bees, organised community gatherings, or simply took time to share a meal with a neighbour in need.

The lessons learned continue to influence how, both locally and internationally, the emergency sector helps people come to terms with disasters. Research and experience highlight that there are many ‘typical’ reactions to disaster, but we also know that everyone experiences the event differently and recovers in their own uniquely personal way.

The trauma of losing a loved one or the upheaval of relocating and rebuilding are complex and lengthy. The simplest of decisions can be emotionally draining and exhausting. While the task of relocating and rebuilding a home may be daunting for some, for others they are able to rise to practical challenges, only to be tripped up by the emotional impact of a lost loved one’s birthday or the pressures of a year 12 exam.

Through our long-term recovery work Red Cross and other organisations have walked alongside people as they’ve faced challenges no-one should. Often reluctant to accept outside support, the courage and resilience of individuals, families and communities is remarkable.

Today it is accepted that it takes five to ten years for people to adapt and be comfortable with their changed circumstances and that the quality and type of support people receive in the immediate aftermath of a disaster can determine long-term health and wellbeing.

In a world facing climate change, and factors like increasing social isolation in our communities, the lessons learned from the 2009 Victorian bushfires continue to inform how we deal with more frequent and intense emergencies. We must be prepared and continue listening to communities in our responses as we did back in 2009.

We know that simple things like looking out for each other, understanding your environment and knowing what’s important to take in an emergency – family photographs for example – all aid recovery. 

During this highly significant anniversary take a moment to acknowledge the courage of those affected by the events of February 2009. Honour their sacrifice by preparing yourself and your family for an experience that hopefully never comes.

If you were impacted by the Victorian Bushfires, it is important to prepare yourself for the day of the commemoration and decide how you might spend it. This will be different for everyone. If you’ve found yourself affected and need some support, Red Cross and other organisations offer a range of tools.

Information on looking after yourself after crisis
Lifeline - phone 13 11 14
Red Cross Get Prepared app
 
By Andrew Coghlan, Australian Red Cross – National Manager of the Emergency Services Program. Andrew played a key role in the Red Cross response to the 2009 Victorian Bushfires and continues to be involved today.