Half a decade after Black Saturday, towns are still rebuilding

Half a decade after Black Saturday, towns are still rebuilding

01 February 2014

published by www.heraldsun.com.au

Australia — MILLIONS of dollars donated to help bushfire victims is sitting unspent in the bank, five years after the Black Saturday fires.

The Government has confirmed some of the $401 million bushfire relief fund is unspent, but says all the money is allocated to survivor services such as psychological support, housing assistance and community recovery projects.

Ahead of next Friday’s five-year anniversary, it can be revealed that at least a dozen households are still in temporary accommodation.

But the vast majority of survivors have rebuilt and moved in to their new homes, or moved elsewhere. Most public infrastructure such as schools, police stations and sporting facilities have been rebuilt.

The fires on February 7, 2009, killed 173 people, injured another 414, razed 2133 houses and 10,000km of fence-line and killed an estimated one million animals.

A subsequent royal commission estimated the cost to the Victorian economy as $4.4 billion.

The Herald Sun can reveal that, five years on:

*Doctors and psychologists have reported anecdotal evidence of a rise in suicides, alcohol and drug abuse and addictive behaviour such as gambling by traumatised bushfire survivors.

*Family violence reports increased in traumatised fire communities including Marysville, Flowerdale and Kinglake.

*There is unhappiness in some areas about block buybacks, which weren’t available until the change of government in 2010. Residents such as Phil Fennell in Kinglake West worried about a lack of maintenance on the two empty blocks either side of his house. He was also concerned about any negative impact on his property price.

*Many houses are not complete, as survivors ran out of money before they could apply the finishing touches, and increased fireproofing drove up construction costs.

*20 of the 67 recommendations from the bushfire royal commission have not yet been completed.

*Only three fire refuges have been completed — none in the Kinglake or Marysville regions.

Marysville’s doctor Lachlan Fraser, who lost his house and his clinic in the fires, said the emotional scars were raw.

“There was one suicide of someone I know, probably a couple of people who took overdoses that I recall and in the following years people had issues with relationships and alcohol,’’ he said.

“There were certainly a number of people with extreme problems but I think everybody across the board had issues with stress, I think generally they coped as well as expected, everyone knew it would take a couple of years to settle down.

“I think most of us will always carry some of that anxiety for years to come.

“The bushfires, the smoke, it puts you on edge again.’’

More than $379 million was donated by the public to the Victorian Bushfire Appeal Fund, which, with interest paid, rose to $401 million and among many projects, funded new sporting and community facilities, support and counselling services, and payments of $50,000 to each householder who lost their home.

But the money has been slow to leave government coffers. The Government would not reveal the amount of unspent funding, but the Department of Human Service, which administers the fund, shows in its most recent annual report shows it has $26.4 million cash at hand in the fund.

The Victorian Bushfire Relief Appeal said yesterday that some of that money had since been spent, and there was now $18 million at hand, rather than $26 million.

Government spokeswoman Jessica Jackson said all the remaining funds were earmarked for initiatives including final payments to householders under the Further Housing Assistance Gift, continuing psychological support, assisting with property clean-ups and dangerous tree removal, and community recovery projects.

Ms Jackson would not provide an update on how many of the remaining 20 recommendations had been fulfilled since the release last year of the Bushfire Royal Commission Implementation Monitor’s report showing 47 of the 67 recommendations were complete.

“The remaining 20 recommendations will be subject to the independent Monitor’s final annual report, due for release in 2014,’’ she said.

Ms Jackson said the buyback scheme, which saw landowners in bushfire zones sell their blocks to the Government, cost $25.6 million and closed in May 2012, with 116 landowners deciding to sell.

The scheme, established in response to one of the royal commission’s recommendations, allows neighbours to purchase the blocks from the Government, provided they do not build on them.

Ms Jackson said there was interest from neighbours in 40 of the blocks, while another two have been absorbed back into the public estate.

She said the Department of Environment and Primary Industries maintained the blocks.

The Government’s Fire Recovery Unit conducted a survey in 2012 to see how many households were still in temporary accommodation.

Ms Jackson said of the 268 households identified, 255 were provided with money through the Further Housing Assistance Gift from the bushfire fund, the Rebuilding Advisory Service and/or the buyback scheme.

“Notwithstanding this assistance it is understood that, as a result of their personal circumstances, a small number of households are yet to complete their rebuilding projects,’’ she said.

Trauma expert Professor Jayashri Kulkarni said the extent of recovery by the survivors would depend heavily on the extent of their physical injuries, and the losses they had suffered.

“It’s twofold. There’s the trauma of loss — loss of house, possessions, and of course loss of loved ones is at the top of the tree,’’ Prof Kulkarni, director of the Monash Alfred Psychiatric Research Centre, said.

“Then there’s the post-trauma — being fearful, being anxious, reliving the trauma, feeling disconnected, all of which can lead to people developing depression.’’

She said increased suicides, family violence and substance or alcohol abuse “would be inevitable.’’

Prof Kulkarni said those who spent time in the Alfred’s burns unit had suffered significant injuries and a number of them had significant emotional and physical problems.

People with existing problems in their life such as being in an abusive relationship, of suffering alcohol or substance abuse, were also likely to experience compounding problems.

And yet Prof Kulkarni said some people had extraordinary resilience and were coping well.

“We do have the other side as well. There is a resilience that people have. Some get it from religious faith, some from love of family, and others you can’t see where it’s come from.

“I don’t think you can always predict who’s going to bounce back stronger than strong.’’

Prof Kulkarni also warned that those who went to help on Black Saturday, such as emergency service workers, had also suffered.

“Some of those people have developed depression. Others have gone on to do really good things helping more people in distress.”

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