Living in the shadow of Black Saturday

Many families faced the complete devastation of their properties.

Black Saturday is embedded in the memory and psyche of most Victorians. A day when, following three days of temperatures over 43 degrees, up to 400 bushfires raged across the state claiming the lives of 173 Australians. Beyond this tragic loss of life, houses and properties were lost, as were animals and stock. Brave firefighting personnel placed themselves in harm’s way and many people in these regions suffered physical and mental anguish, the echoes of which prevail today.

The initial awareness of what was happening on that day, the grim choice of whether to leave one’s property or to stay, and the fearful return to what you might find are etched into people’s memories. Many returning families faced the complete devastation of their property: house, cars, sheds. It’s no wonder they felt destitute, in shock, grief and even anger. Comments like “we love it here, we’ll rebuild” often prevailed. In the initial years and for some even now, there was need for support, counselling, and, for many, medication to help them deal with the stress and trauma.

On the anniversary of Black Saturday, it is a time to reflect not only on the trauma associated with these bushfires but the sense of support and community engendered by a common threat. It is a time to acknowledge the struggle many faced dealing with their losses and the ever-present shadow of this experience, but also to consider that for many, the difficult period of adjustment since has fostered a sense of resilience and post-traumatic growth.

This is not to say that the memories have disappeared, that it has not been a struggle for individuals, their families, and their communities. But the Aussie spirit to fight back and to re-build has been strong. Many have participated in what might be considered a ‘rising of the phoenix’ where communities have been determined to rebuild as they love the area in which they live and their community. Others have chosen to relocate as the memories were too painful and the tasks associated with rebuilding too onerous to even contemplate. Whatever paths people took at that time, they bravely reconstructed their lives, created new memories, and began the sad process of building new photographic records of their lives post Black Saturday.

The journey has been a difficult one for all involved including those living in the fire grounds, those fighting the fires, children growing up without a parent lost in the fires, husbands and wives mourning the loss of their partner, relationship breakups, and for many, the constant underlying fear that it could happen again.

Echoes of this time are never far away, even with the passage of time. Despite strategies to manage the trauma, summer with its high temperatures and sudden unexpected noises like that of a jet or train which mimic the roar of an approaching fireball, can provoke fear that it is, or might be, happening again no matter how much time has elapsed or how well people may think their scars have healed. Some level of heightened arousal is both normal and common, but using strategies such as focused breathing and relaxation to deal with it so that it does not become disabling is vital.

A sense of community, of support from family, friends and others – especially those who shared this experience – are important and much of this has transpired. For some, the high physical and psychological consequences of Black Saturday made seeking professional counselling and/or medications to help them through the initial years – to cope with loss and with the images embedded in the memory of residents and firefighters alike. These are images that can never be removed.

While Victoria, and the rest of Australia, currently face further devastation, it is important we remember the high cost of bushfires and acknowledge the courageous spirit of residents, firefighters, and auxiliary workers and the struggle involved in life after the fires.

If you are experiencing distress as a result of Black Saturday, or the current fires, please contact Lifeline (13 11 14), Beyond Blue (1300 22 4636), or your general practitioner.

Associate Professor Kate Moore is an academic in the School of Health & Life Sciences. She has more than 25 years’ experience as a clinician and researcher focusing on mental health, and stress and coping.

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