Children affected by Black Saturday and other bushfires may experience trauma long after the blaze is extinguished

06 February 2021

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AUSTRALIA – Tahlia Edmonds planned to be a ballerina one day, or maybe a gymnast. She was twirling around her living room on February 7, 2009, aged four, when her dad burst in and bellowed at the family to get out.

A fire burning in the distance for most of the day had first become a small plume of smoke on a nearby hill. Within 15 minutes it was a raging bushfire, and it was heading straight for their house.

There was no time to be sentimental. All her parents could grab were the three kids — aged two, four, and nine — and the two pets, before jumping into the car.

As they escaped the fire approaching St Andrews, north-east of Melbourne, they were met with a wall of flames.

A Black Saturday bushfire covers a hillside below the house of Wade Horton at Humevale

The Black Saturday bushfires resulted in Australia’s highest ever loss of human life from a bushfire, with 173 fatalities.(Supplied: Wade Horton)

“We got out, but then we were trapped,” Tahlia said.

“The flames were all around us. We raced right through the inferno.

Their neighbours — only 30 seconds behind them — did not.

When the Edmonds family returned several days later to survey the damage, the house Tahlia was born in was a pile of ash.

There was a bitter taste in the air, the smell of smoke, and an absence of sound. Deathly silence.

They had lost everything except each other.

A charred landscape with a digger and a dumptrick in the foreground

The Edmonds family home was completely destroyed.(Supplied: Tahlia Edmonds)

Twelve years of rebuilding

Of the 400 or so fires burning 12 years ago on Black Saturday, the Kilmore East bushfire that tore through Tahlia’s neighbourhood was the deadliest.

A total of 119 people died as a result of that individual blaze, with 125,000 hectares and 1,242 homes destroyed.

Now 16, Tahlia Edmonds has lived most of her life in Black Saturday’s shadow.

An illustration of a tree with leaves in 'before' then a tree without leaves in 'after'.

A drawing by Tahlia of what the environment looked like after the blaze.(Supplied: Tahlia Edmonds)

Rebuilding of the Edmonds house continues. The shed was the first structure to be rebuilt, and it remains their home today.

“We’re building out the back of the shed so that we’ve got more bedrooms, because at the moment we’ve just got one bedroom, and my mum and dad sleep in the lounge room,” she said.

“So it’s a little bit cramped.”

A young girl in a trench with a bucket

Tahlia has been helping to rebuild since she was very young.(Supplied: Tahlia Edmonds)

It’s still painful for Tahlia to talk about that day. It also stings when people expect the trauma of Black Saturday to be over by now.

“I get mad when people [say], ‘Why haven’t you got your life back in order yet? Just rebuild and move on,'” Tahlia said.

A young girl standing in a hole poking her head out

Tahlia says it’s not easy to move on from a bushfire event when the rebuilding process extends years.(Supplied: Tahlia Edmonds)

“My siblings and I lost a lot of Mum and Dad’s time. So much of it was, and still is, spent on rebuilding.”

Mental health impacts of bushfires may emerge as time passes

Children can be dealing with the trauma of bushfires long after the blaze is extinguished, says Charles Sturt University academic Michael Curtin.

Professor Curtin contributed to a recent study published in the Medical Journal of Australia which found bushfire-affected children experienced worse mental health outcomes compared with children not exposed to bushfires.

“There were short-, medium- and long-term impacts of bushfire exposure on the wellbeing of children who had been exposed to it,” he said.

Charred trees stand in an ashen and burnt valley.

Approximately 400 fires were recorded across Victoria on Black Saturday, affecting 78 communities.(Supplied: Stella Reid)

“Sometimes, it could be months to years afterwards that the impact occurs.”

A bare structure of a shed on a landscape

The family now lives in a shed on their property.(Supplied: Tahlia Edmonds)

However, Professor Curtin said community outreach and mental health services established in the immediate aftermath of a bushfire may become less accessible as time passes.

“A lot of people get on with their lives, but what we need to do is monitor the people who are affected, and actually make sure we support those people,” he said.

Three young children and a man look out at construction in a field

This bathroom unit with a sink, shower, toilet and washing machine, donated by a bushfire relief group, was the first thing to be rebuilt on the property.(Supplied: Tahlia Edmonds)

‘Spreading joy through movement’

Tahlia has never lost her passion for dance and movement.

For a long time, the rebuilding effort meant her parents couldn’t afford to send her to dance or gymnastics classes.

“I love to flip, I love to tumble, I love to dance,” she said.

A young girl does a handstand with her feet held up by her dad

Tahlia would take any opportunity to practise her handstands.(Supplied: Tahlia Edmonds)

“I always asked to go, but there was never the money or the opportunity.”

When she was 13, her parents gave her a term of rhythmic gymnastics for her birthday.

Two young girls and a man on a building site

The whole Edmonds family have helped to rebuild, including Tahlia’s sister Orianna and dad John.(Supplied: Tahlia Edmonds)

“That was so special and exciting,” Tahlia said.

“I didn’t really stop after that, because then I got into state competitions, and then I started acrobatics and ballet as well.

“I want to use my skills to give back — to dance in hospitals and nursing homes, and spread joy through movement.”

A gymnast doing a floor routine with judges marking her

Tahlia now competes in state competitions for rhythmic gymnastics, despite not being able to start training until she was a teenager.(Supplied: Tahlia Edmonds)

Social connections critical in recovery

Professor Curtin said tailored mental health responses specifically for natural disaster survivors may be necessary as climate change increases the frequency and intensity of bushfire events.

“The impact of climate change more broadly needs to be addressed,” he said.

“I’d like to think we’d be able to have really good mental health services that would cater for this, and people in disaster prone areas would just be more aware these [mental health impacts] can happen.”

Black stumps, green shoots

A young girl sits on a log and looks away

There is green amid the black on the Edmonds property now.(ABC Heywire: Marc Eiden)

Some families left Tahlia’s neighbourhood after Black Saturday. The black stumps still dotting the landscape are a constant reminder of that day.

“But there’s some young trees that have grown back since, and some of the black trees have got new green shoots.”

But Tahlia wouldn’t want to be anywhere else as her family slowly but surely rebuilds.

A young girl digging wet concrete

Tahlia has grown up on the reconstruction site of her family home.(Supplied: Tahlia Edmonds)

“It’s really exciting to be able to watch the rebuilding and know that no matter what we’ve been through, we can come back after that,” she said.

“I want to remind people that despite the most challenging circumstances, in time we can overcome anything.”

A young woman does the splits on the grass at a property

Tahlia had to practise gymnastics at home during the Melbourne lockdown, but is now back training in the gymnasium.(Supplied: Tahlia Edmonds)

The ABC’s Takeover Melbourne program gives a voice to young people across Greater Melbourne. If you would like to find out more about the next Takeover Melbourne intake, which will open in late March, go to the Takeover website.

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