Bushfire recovery – it’s a long story: 10-year report

Image of burnt tree regrowing, looking up to the sky
A new report, 10 Years Beyond Bushfires, highlights the importance of community and connection in what is a lesson for current and future disaster recovery efforts. Image: Getty

Most of those affected by the 2009 Black Saturday bushfires say they are ‘mostly’ or ‘fully’ recovered but many still need support, a study on the mental health and wellbeing of those affected has found.

The University of Melbourne-led project saw more than 1000 participants share their experiences at different stages of the research through community meetings, repeat surveys, or in-depth interviews. They were recruited from 25 communities in 10 Victorian regions.

The project, which looked at how people were coping 3-5 years and 10 years post-fires, highlighted the influence of close friends and family, social networks, community groups, and the natural environment on resilience and recovery.

People benefited from clear communication and services that were flexible and delivered with care.

The Beyond Bushfires: Community, Resilience, and Recovery study examined the impact of the 2009 Victorian bushfires, including Black Saturday, on the mental health and wellbeing of community members.

Led by University of Melbourne Professor Lisa Gibbs, the team of researchers and partners is building an understanding of longer-term recovery and the ongoing impacts of a major disaster to identify where support is needed and guide preparedness for and recovery from future events.

Their new report, 10 Years Beyond Bushfires, presents an overview of key learnings and provides recommendations for community members, school communities, service providers, government and researchers.

It found that people directly affected by the 2009 Victorian bushfires showed remarkable capacity to adapt and recover. Ten years later, 62.6 per cent of respondents reported that they personally felt ‘mostly’ or ‘fully recovered’.

Perceptions of community recovery were much lower, with 39.3 per cent of participants reporting that they felt that their community was ‘mostly’ or ‘fully recovered’.

Exposure to the fires increased the risk of mental illness. This could extend for years, particularly if people experienced ongoing difficulties with income, accommodation and relationships. Of study participants from highly impacted communities, 22 per cent reported symptoms consistent with a diagnosable mental health disorder 10 years after the bushfires.

Professor Gibbs said while respondents’ mental health improved, life satisfaction significantly decreased from three to five years after the bushfires, before rising again after 10 years, suggesting a ‘U-shaped pattern’.

“Despite gradually improving 10 years on, life satisfaction was still lower for those in communities seriously impacted by the fires, compared to those less affected,” Professor Gibbs said.

The study also found:

  • Financial difficulty decreased over time, from five to 10 years after the fires. Inability to pay electricity, gas or telephone bills on time due to a shortage of money was identified as the most common difficulty.
  • In the three to four years after the fires, reports of violence experienced by women were higher in high bushfire-affected areas (7.4 per cent), compared with low bushfire affected regions (one per cent).
  • Five years post-fires, around 10 per cent of respondents from high bushfire affected areas reported significant anger problems, three-times higher than in low to moderately impacted areas.
  • Being involved in one or two community groups or organisations was associated with more positive outcomes in terms of mental health and wellbeing three to five years after the fires
  • Some children from bushfire impacted communities experienced long-term impacts on academic performance.
  • Ten years on, 61.2 per cent of those whose homes were damaged had rebuilt or were in the process of rebuilding. However, 38.2 per cent did not rebuild.

The report made a range of recommendations, including a staged five-year framework for supporting recovery from major disasters to account for extended mental health impacts and support short and long-term recovery.

“We need to educate the general public about what is needed to support recovery because a lot of pressure and expectation can be put on agencies for immediate action, when we also need to plan for the long term,” Professor Gibbs said.

About 56 per cent of study participants reported being separated from family members during Black Saturday, and for 30 per cent it was 24 hours or more before they knew the fate of loved ones.

Professor Gibbs said it was important then that people’s bushfire safety plans included how they would connect with each other if mobile phone systems were down, and that links to services like the Red Cross Register.Find.Reunite were widely shared.

Read the full list of recommendations.

“It is so important to understand that the bushfire experience was life-changing for many in the affected communities,” Professor Gibbs said.

“It is also relevant for people affected by more recent events such as the Black Summer and Western Australia fires. Our report recommendations provide guidance about how to reduce difficulties and support best outcomes.”

Funding partners for this project included Emergency Management Victoria, Australian Red Cross, Victorian Department of Health. Partner organisations include Phoenix Australia Centre for Posttraumatic Mental Health, Municipal Association Victoria, and Social Research Group.