“Half the town is on medication, and the other half should be.”
That’s bushfire survivor Anne Dixon’s dark humoured attempt to describe how people from the mountain-top hamlets around Kinglake are coping 10 years on from Black Saturday.
The district, north of Melbourne, was the epicentre of the tragedy – 120 lives were lost in the Kilmore-to-Kinglake fire from an overall state toll of 173 on 7 February 2009, with 1,242 homes destroyed.
While trees have grown back and houses have been rebuilt, for many life has never been the same.
Ahead of the anniversary on Thursday and amid similar dry conditions and a summer heatwave, many from affected Victorian communities are on edge and fragile.
Dixon, who lived in Kinglake for 22 years and lost her home in the fire, takes issue with people saying residents should “get over it”.
“You wouldn’t say that to someone whose entire family died in a car crash,” she says.
“You would be amazed at the number of people who said, ‘Oh, you must be better off now you’ve got a new house’ – it’s not like you moved from your old house to your new house and take everything with you.
“We’ve gone back to the very beginning and had to start over again,” she says. “You’ve got to buy everything, including a blooming bath plug and veggie peeler.”
On Black Saturday, Dixon narrowly escaped in her ute with her hyperventilating cat late in the afternoon.
“I thought, shit, I’m the last moron in Kinglake,” she says now.
Stranded as the fire front came through, Dixon saw the petrol station go up “in one hell of a big bang”.
She sent her daughter Jess a message telling her she loved her and one to family and friends along the lines of: “Stuffed up big time, trapped in car with cat, this is my location.”
Life after the fires was initially so hectic it took a long time for the full impact of the trauma to be felt. Counselling services needed to be extended.
“In the aftermath you’re busy, finding somewhere to live, buying clothes, sorting out the insurance, if your car was burnt you’re busy trying to get a new one, you’re busy, busy, busy and then you’re busy rebuilding,” Dixon says.
“It takes a few years to stop being busy and to sit down and … start to think back on it.”
In the first few years of fire recovery, Dixon would type her address into Google Earth every few weeks for a glimpse of her beloved weatherboard cottage before it turned to ashes.
Only one photo of her old house was saved – a picture on a snowy winter’s day – but Dixon is philosophical about losing her family’s photo albums dating back to the 1860s.
“My cousin, who is the family historian, lost her son at Marysville. So the pictures really pale in comparison to that.”
Mental health problems
In the first three to four years after the 2009 fires, 26% of people in the worst-affected areas showed signs of mental health problems, including post-traumatic stress disorder, severe psychological distress and depression, a 2016 study found. At the five-year mark, 22% were still dealing with mental health issues.
Data from the federal health department shows an increase of prescriptions for anti-depressants for the statistical area that covers Kinglake and other fire-affected towns, slightly higher than national and Victorian figures.
Whittlesea-based psychologist David Younger has worked with scores of bushfire survivors over the years and still sees patients grappling with PTSD, depression and anxiety, and other trauma symptoms.
“Typically, what happens every summer in the area is some people go into an increased state of high arousal, they become hypervigilant and anxious,” Younger says. This summer’s fires in Tasmania also played on people’s minds, he adds.
For children whose families died in the fire and who lost classmates in the blaze, the past decade has been one of emotional turmoil.
“What I’ve typically seen in adolescents is that the fire event caused significant disruption in their life and in what we would call a normal developmental pathway,” Younger says.
“These could be kids who were so affected by what has happened that they were unable to finish school – they left in year 10 or year 11 and they may not have worked in a substantial employment role since. They’ve come through to me in their 20s wanting to understand what happened and really get their life back on track.”
Christine Exton and Cheryl Chalmers are volunteers at the Kinglake West heritage centre, which will hold an exhibition of photographs and artefacts recovered from the 2009 fires.
“All our kids grew up that day,” Exton says.
“I had my youngest in the car with me and she was trembling and kept saying ‘I don’t want to die mum, I don’t want to die’. I had my hand on her leg to reassure her and then it went orange and black and I said ‘I’ve got to take my hand off your leg and put it on the steering wheel’ and she was like ‘no, no, no, no, no’. She was only 12 … just the fear.”
Chalmerssays she has learnt a lot about strategies to support her three children.
“Our son had terrible depression after the fires because he lost his best friend at the age of 10,” she says. “I hate living here, I would move tomorrow if I could.”
But for some, moving away only brought more misfortune.
After losing his home in the fire, Thomas Borg, now 30, relocated to Laidley in Queensland’s Lockyer Valley, only to have his new house get flooded in 2011.
“It didn’t worry me the second time,” he says. “Shit happens.”
He has since moved back to Kinglake and had a relationship breakdown.
“The divorce rate is probably at the highest level … a lot of people have turned to alcohol and drugs … especially marijuana, to cope,” he says.
His mother, Odette Bellamy, lost her home in the blaze, and the properties of two siblings and his father were also burnt out.
Clockwise from top: Survivors Odette Bellamy and son Thomas Borg in the backyard of her home in Kinglake West, which was previously destroyed by the 2009 fires; this statue was all that remained after the Black Saturday bushfire tore through Odette Bellamy’s property.
Bellamy was at a wedding with her youngest daughter, Zoe, when she heard that the bushfire had destroyed her home at Kinglake West.
Zoe had been swimming in a dam that morning with two school friends, who died later in the blaze.
Bellamy’s other daughter, Mary Jane, now 28, had driven over to her father’s place to rescue him.
“She told him to get out. He didn’t want to go, he wanted to stay. She made him get out. There were trees falling down,” Bellamy says.
“At the intersection she went the right way – had she gone the other way she might have died. That really affected her, she had a bit of a breakdown. She couldn’t come down for quite a while, she couldn’t drive for quite a while. But she’s doing really good now.”
The only things that survived on Bellamy’s property were a reclining Buddha statue and the letter box.
Emotional toll on local police
In the weeks following the fires, survivors had a steady stream of funerals to attend and in the years since there have been more.
The gruelling task of attending suicide deaths has taken its toll on local police, says Jason Caine, the father of a local leading senior constable who was on duty during the 2009 fires and received an Order of Australia medal for his role.
“[Cameron] was always a people person and now he’s got PTSD,” Caine says. “He was the town clown, he was a jovial person, but he’s not a jovial person now … he’s just languishing in a chair at home.”
At the Kinglake West Fire Brigade, captain Frank Allan is supervising volunteers washing firetrucks on a Sunday morning in January. Behind them, rays of sunlight stream on to the yellow uniforms hanging from hooks on the shed wall.
Allan was on one truck and his wife, Karen, was on the other on Black Saturday.
“We actually got caught out there and had to stay there because we couldn’t get back in for a couple of hours,” he says.
“She knew that we’d made a call that we were stuck. At one stage we were probably half a [kilometre] apart but our truck radios couldn’t talk to each other.”
He says the radio systems are now digital, but have not been tested in thick smoke.
Deb and Mark Morrow’s home was burnt out at Kinglake West and their daughter Bronnie and her young family lost their home in nearby Pheasant Creek.
Mark is a retired firefighter who used to work for Melbourne Water. A decade ago, he was out on the back of the firetruck for weeks on end.
“He’s a bit sensitive about [the fires] … he saw dead bodies, he’s seen a hell of a lot,” Deb says.
After rebuilding their house, the Morrows installed a bore, a buffer area at the back of the property, four fire-fighting pumps and solar batteries, and have a dam that is always full of water.
“We are really self-sufficient,” Deb says. “I’m petrified of fires. I never go away in summer. It’s changed my whole life. I never go on summer vacations. We are here. One of us is here at all times.”
It took four years to feel a sense of a new normal. “It’s like you had a second life,” she says.
The Morrows were keen bird breeders and lost their collection of 100 exotic birds.
They were initially reluctant to take up the hobby again, but then a friend asked them to adopt a rescued galah. Soon enough, the rebuilt aviaries were home to colourful species including eclectus and blue-winged parrots, quails, finches and rainbow lorikeets.
Deb proudly shows off her vegetable patch – brimming with corn, pumpkins, tomatoes and a mystery zucchini-like plant.
Butterflies and bees dance across sunflowers and Jessie, the five-month-old border collie pup, frolics around.
Deb Morrow says: “The fires couldn’t take my memories. My cup is always half full, never empty.”
* The Victorian Department of Human Services has a special guide for people struggling with their feelings around the 10th anniversary of the bushfires. Crisis support services can be reached 24 hours a day: Lifeline 13 11 14; Suicide Call Back Service 1300 659 467; Kids Helpline 1800 55 1800; MensLine Australia 1300 78 99 78; Beyond Blue 1300 22 4636