Australia — MONDAY afternoon three weeks ago, Kinglake: 30 people file into the Rebuilding Advisory Centre, built after the Black Saturday firestorm of 2009 killed 120 from the region.
They are mainly welfare workers, counsellors and psychologists. A group of community leaders go, too, despite the meeting being closed.
It was a crisis meeting in every sense for a small community that says it has been forgotten, despite suffering so much.
”We are an hour from the world’s most liveable city,” says Daryl Taylor, ”but it feels like we have dropped off the radar.”
In April, four locals killed themselves in a suicide cluster. Maybe five. The proof of the fifth, a woman in the still-charred mountain forest alone with a gun, is yet to be finally determined. The month felt to everyone like a dirty stain.
Of the four, two languished in the Hume region’s nearest psychiatric unit three hours away in Shepparton, isolated from their families. Another was a paramedic who recovered the dead during Black Saturday’s grim aftermath. He killed himself on the Saturday before this crisis meeting. In the hours leading up to what happened, armed police surrounded his home.
He was one of the town’s helpers yet was so wounded – by pre-existing trauma compounded, his family says, by the fires – that he dramatically took his own life. “Black Saturday was just one aspect,” says his father, a country New South Wales churchman. ”It was one bad thing too many.”
Only the day before, Friday April 20, news reached town of one of the Shepparton suicides, a 26-year-old depressive man who was, a friend says, “deeply traumatised” by the scorched-earth chaos of Black Saturday where the heat was enough to melt glass.
The community already knew of attempted suicides. Local welfare agencies have now revealed increased domestic violence, marriage breakdown and alcohol and drug abuse.
Yesterday a Facebook page emerged pointing to an anonymous blog critical of many community recovery initiatives.
”We don’t know how to help ourselves and we can’t navigate the bushfire recovery system,” says Lesley Bebbington, a teacher and youth worker. ”Everything is unravelling.”
The crisis meeting was called by Bernie Durkin. He’s from a community health service in Ringwood with reach to the Yarra Ranges and, indirectly, Kinglake.
His reason was not the suicides but “the ripple effect of knowledge of them”. Kinglake, Durkin says, is “fragile, vulnerable and volatile.” He fears the cluster could either lead to “comparative thinking”, the mindset being “so-and-so is dead, I thought he was tracking well, where does that leave me?” Or, worse, prompt a “viral” outbreak of copycats.
There’s another meeting on Monday. On Tuesday, a delegation of residents will meet the Deputy Premier and Minister for Bushfire Response, Peter Ryan. On Wednesday state government-appointed bushfire psychologist Dr Rob Gordon will hold a public discussion on the suicides.
“It’s seems like we are stuck in a perpetual crisis,” says Lesley Bebbington. ”Most of us cannot keep going on like this.”
Post-disaster academic literature points to year three as very difficult at a social level. In Kinglake, the recovery money is in (the Victorian bushfires garnered $20.5 million in donations), most physical rebuilding has been done and the landscape looks normal.
Yet the people enter a new phase of suffering. A report called The Way He Tells It – Relationships After Black Saturday by Debra Parkinson and Claire Zara from Women’s Health Goulburn North-East reveals a culture of “hyper-masculinity”, endemic domestic abuse and rising depression and anxiety in Kinglake.
“People are trying to survive individually in small cells instead of turning to each other,” says Cress Byrne, a Kinglake resident and educator, who also fears more suicides.
Disengagement means welfare services – some of which are either withdrawing from Kinglake, losing funding or reducing what they offer – are accessed less.
Many residents now call for a strategic recovery plan for the town of 4000. Incredibly, there has never been one.
Former police chief commissioner and bushfire reconstruction authority head Christine Nixon and former Murrindindi Shire Council mayor Lyn Gunter have unsuccessfully asked the state government to sack the council. Ms Gunter lodged a submission to the Bushfire Royal Commission criticising the council’s fire response but it was never tabled.
Local Daryl Taylor, who has worked in community development, says the network of welfare services available is confusing for residents, requiring complex referrals to agencies often staffed only part time by ever-changing health workers. Neighbouring fire-affected councils – Yarra Ranges, Whittlesea and Nillumbik – have better services operating longer hours.
“The recovery has been a disaster,” Taylor says. The town was suffering ”managed, adaptive decline” with recovery centrally managed by the then Brumby state Labor government “with the unstated objective of rebuilding in time for his election.”
Kinglake sources say the council is a hotbed of local ALP powerbrokers.
A Victorian government spokesperson concedes some bushfire recovery services are in a process of “sunsetting” but says the government ”remains committed to supporting communities affected by the 2009 bushfires”.