2009 Victorian Bushfires Anniversary Event

The 7th of February 2014 marked five years since the 2009 Victorian bushfires. Everyone within Victoria remembers that day and their personal experience of the extreme heat and wind. However, not everyone had the same loss; affected communities were profoundly changed, with many people losing a sense of safety along with fences, houses, pets, livestock and worse still; loved ones.  It is a time that has been acknowledged each year since February 2009 at a central memorial event in the city of Melbourne (along with other local events). This year is the first memorial event that I have attended. It was a lovely tribute to everyone who experienced the bushfires in 2009 through a time of reflection. The speakers discussed how far people have come and the future and possibilities that are ahead. The proceedings included inviting people to come forward and sprinkle rose petals in water, an opportunity for many people to be involved in an event that was so large. It was also a personal way for people to stop and remember.

Music began and concluded the official proceedings with the amazing Nillumbik Youth Choir which was a lovely way to finish the formalities. It can be viewed by clicking here.

As researchers in bushfire recovery we had the opportunity to contribute to the event by working with the Fire Recovery Unit  to produce a project called The Bigger Picture. This initiative collated photographs taken by community members that expressed their recovery experiences in the five years since the 2009 bushfires. This was displayed at the anniversary event on a large screen and many people took time to stop and absorb the photos that were submitted. Many of these images are both beautiful and touching and are available for public viewing on the project website.

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The range of experiences and feelings represented in the photos mirror those we have been hearing about in our research with community members over the last few years.  They show the long term impacts of this disaster on people’s lives and reflect the varying stages of recovery that coexist within impacted communities. This is important to remember and acknowledge when working amongst those affected by disaster.

This anniversary event focused on individual experiences and on the future for these communities. Not everyone would have felt comfortable attending the statewide anniversary event and there were many local community gatherings that may have been an alternative. Some, no doubt, will have preferred not to mark the anniversary by attending a formal ceremony. We just hope people spent this time doing what was best for them.

Elyse Snowdon, Research Fellow

Email: snowdone@unimelb.edu.au

Disasters impacting communities all over the world.

At the international conference on The Demography of Disasters, I was overwhelmed with the amount of deaths resulting from overseas disasters that killed hundreds of thousands of people. It struck me that the 2009 Victorian bushfires seem on such a small scale compared to this. As I have been working on a project for three years now (looking at the medium to long term impacts from the 2009 Victorian bushfires), I feel that I have some understanding of the huge impact it has, and continues to have, on many people and communities. Therefore I can only imagine the impact on these other countries when such loss has occurred. Especially as these countries are at high risk of future disasters and are usually under resourced to prepare, respond and recover from these. This is a massive challenge for recovery and resilience work within these areas. But imagine if we had that many people die within Victoria? How come there is such a large difference in the death toll between these countries and our own? Is it that these countries are highly populated, even in their rural areas? Or is it because we have greater resources and preparedness mechanisms in place to prevent such large scale impacts?

Over the two days, it was emphasised that disaster recovery efforts need to be tailored to the particular area in which they occur. This is due to variability of culture and traditions, which can both assist and hinder the resilience process. Change in anyone’s life is difficult, especially after a disaster, therefore attempting to restore traditions is important but the difficulty within these countries is that at times it’s more dangerous to restore these traditions than change. The cultural relevance within Victorian communities differs greatly from these countries, which further complicates the applicability of these learnings in different contexts.

Throughout the conference there were many different presentations, exploring the impact on communities after a disaster. However, many of the areas being presented were at constant high risk of disasters. Recovery planning needs to occur after a disaster along with planning for the possibility of another disaster, as they are at high threat of one occurring within their lifetime. This threat needs to be accounted for in regards to resilience and future preparedness.

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Trees recovering from the Victorian 2009 bushfires.

Some of the presenters completed studies in Asian countries – however, some of the limitations of their studies included not knowing or understanding the local context and how their research findings fit into this. To overcome this many of these researchers collaborate with others within the country or the particular rural area in which the research is being completed. For our study: Beyond Bushfires: Community, Resilience and Recovery (www.beyondbushfires.org.au) we have also taken on this approach. We have many stakeholders from local areas within the participating communities which include residents, local government, NGO’s. As part of the research process we are taking back our initial findings to our community partners and asking them for assistance in interpreting these in terms of what they mean locally. This knowledge adds another level of understanding and allows for non-fire related impacts to be accounted for.

There is a shift in the social environment being just as important as the physical environment in the countries that were presented. However, as this is a major focus of our study – hopefully we can add some interesting evidence to this literature. So stay tuned to not only to this blog but the emerging findings that the Beyond Bushfires team has to report later this year.

If you would like to keep updated with the project to join the Beyond Bushfires email list please send an email to: info-beyondbushfires@unimelb.edu.au