By Bonnie Cassen
One year on from the start of the devastating Currowan mega-fire, residents and visitors to the villages of Manyana, Bendalong, North Bendalong, Cunjurong Point and Berringer Lake are still experiencing trauma caused by the events of last summer.
That is the conclusion of a landmark survey conducted by Manyana Matters Environmental Association (MMEA) with funding from the Australian Mutuals Foundation and Business Council of Cooperatives and Mutuals.
The MMEA has released the findings as the NSW South Coast marks 12 months since the deadly Currowan fire that was ignited by a lightning strike on 26th November 2019. The fire burned out of control for 74 days, hitting the Red Head Villages on 1st January and 4th January. More than eighty per cent of the Shoalhaven's National Parks were burnt, some 3,000 residents and holidaymakers were evacuated from the villages, and millions of native animals perished in the fire.
Whilst there is some data about the impact of the 2003 Canberra fires, this survey explores the mental health impacts of the Black Summer fires on affected communities. MMEA's survey was undertaken to understand the nature of trauma and recovery better and invited respondents to reflect on how they felt before, during and after the fires.
How Manyana Experienced the Currowan Mega Fires
As we all know, 2019/2020 summer bushfires affected the Red Head Villages area even before New Year's Eve. Manyana RFS volunteers were called out many times from the start of the Currowan Fires in November, and many in the community watched the approaching fires anxiously. The smoke haze blanketed the skies for many days during that anxious time.
The two thoughts grazing across minds were hope that their own RFS would not be too exhausted from firefighting in other places to fight their fires; and that reinforcements from outside the community would be there for them, as their volunteers had been there for others.
The fires finally came to Manyana from the south on New Year's Eve after destroying homes and bush at Lake Conjola. The usually cooling southerlies brought fire and mayhem flinging embers across the lake.
Years of drought left behind very dry bush easily flammable with the build-up of fuel. Local RFS had been predicting the onslaught - knowing it was coming, just not precisely when.
With only one road in, the community was quickly cut off. Power lines downed, communications with the outside cut, as darkness descended the fires lit up the night sky immediately west where the sunset had been. With water bombing impossible at night, two crews of only ten volunteers fought flames fanned by the southerlies that raged horizontally through the understorey.
Miraculously only one old shack was lost and a few rowboats at the lake's edge. There were three days of respite to clear and reopen the lifeline out, the Bendalong Road, before the next predicted onslaught on Saturday. From Tuesday, New Year's Eve to Friday was a critical time as the reality of the loss of power and communications set in for holidaymakers and permanents.
The Community Hall became a hub for impromptu disaster planning and strategising. People with the skills came out of the woodwork. This included local nurses and other medicos who triaged the sick and needy. A sea link was established with Capitol Chemist in Ulladulla filling prescriptions and Milton IGA providing supplies – although by this time the Ulladulla / Milton area also had lost power, affecting petrol stations and supermarkets.
After two days of clearing the burnt fallen trees from the Bendalong Road, reinforcements were able to get in by road on the Friday, and the community shepherded 3,000 holidaymakers out onto the Princes Highway safely on their way home.
Saturday was forecast to be "catastrophic". This time the fires came from the north-west. With the holidaymakers gone, the whole community focussed on following RFS preparedness instructions for protecting properties. Fire-retardant rings had already been air bombed. A special RFS Strike Force Team from the Northern Beaches (Sydney) and Fire and Rescue teams were stationed to the area for reinforcement.
Together they fought unusually unpredictable flames for hours, wave after wave of aerial water bombing supplemented efforts on the ground. Whilst saving property was paramount, the community were also determined to protect pockets of bush slated for future development knowing these would become islands of refuge, recovery and regeneration.
Since the fires months of mournfully silent bush have slowly been replaced by birdsong, and some insect sounds. Teams of locals established feeding stations and night cameras to support precious wildlife recovery. Many in the community are also working to protect precious unburnt forest from development.
Manyana Trauma and Recovery Study
MMEA member Sheree Cole was one of the research team working on the trauma project. "The findings from our survey revealed a really strong connection between the environment and healing," Ms Cole told me. "People are wanting actions that are going to help them to feel more secure in the future as well as things that help them to feel more connected to Country and to have more knowledge about the area as well."
While responses revealed a variety of stages of recovery across all age groups, the survey concluded the community has not yet properly healed and there is still much trauma leading up to the next fire season.
"A vast majority of participants reported they still feel sadness at the loss caused by the fires. Many are worried about the future and want to be better prepared," said Larraine Larri, survey lead, local social researcher and member of the MMEA.
The report found the COVID-19 pandemic has added to people's worry and distress and potentially set back the recovery process. It also revealed a close connection between residents and holidaymakers and the environment, with many linking the healing process to the recovery of the natural landscape.
Across all ages and for both permanent residents and non-permanents, concern for the wildlife and trees has been one of the significant causes of both trauma and recovery. Trauma has been expressed in terms of desolation and devastation at the loss of forest and wildlife.
Our recovery as humans has been described in terms directly linked to the recovery of the surrounding landscape. In particular the quotes from the survey highlight seeing regeneration of trees; noticing small numbers of birds, insects and kangaroos returning.
Happy to have green shoots and seeing wildlife and seeing locals rebuilding (before COVID-19 after the fires, 45-50 yr old, Non-permanent homeowner)
For some, healing has been helped by actively participating in ecological recovery through being part of the roster of maintaining feed and water stations; setting up and checking nesting boxes; and sharing photos of observing and feeding returning wildlife on Manyana Wildlife Support Group Facebook page. Others have valued the opportunity to be vocal as part of the community in protecting unburnt bush from development.
The community rallying to do something really astonishing by saving some of our place from development. We live surrounded by wildness and we have had enough of destruction. (45-54 year old, Permanent resident)
Planning for future fire resilience at home and connecting with nature. Saving the bush has helped! (35-44 year old, Permanent)
The campaign to save the forest. The visible regrowth. The endless beauty of the place. The bonding of the community. Tempered always by the knowledge of the animals and environment lost. (45-54 year old, Non-permanent homeowner)
Walking in the bush, getting involved in community-initiated actions, and feeding animals. (45-54, Non-permanent homeowner)
When invited to provide suggestions for recovery activities, many responses were directly related to caring for Country and focused on helping people to feel more connected to each other and to the natural environment around them. These included tree planting, a community garden, guided educational bush walks and learning about cultural and cool burning techniques.
MMEA spokesperson Jorj Lowrey says the survey findings reinforce the group's commitment to preventing further loss of native habitat.
"Our community has already lost so much," Ms Lowrey said. "Given these survey findings, it's essential for our mental health and wellbeing that the forest that survived the fire continues to grow, and the animals that survived it still have somewhere to live. That's why our community is determined to keep our precious unburnt forest safe from the bulldozers so that we can continue to heal."
Bill Egan is a Manyana resident and a member of the local RFS who has been very active in the Manyana Matters campaign to save the precious piece of habitat destined for development.
“I remember just after I came back from Bawley Point after we saved the village down there, and I thought I had seen a lot by then,” Bill told me. “I’d been out on the Currowan fire quite a few times deep in the bush west of Termeil and seen how hot the fire had run through there.”
Then one night the Manyana RFS crew tried putting a backburn in, and it ran through a rainforest gully and exploded. No one had ever seen anything like that before and under conditions, where previously you wouldn’t have been able to light a fire. It ran downhill and exploded into a rainforest. In normal circumstances, rainforest doesn’t burn.
What they were seeing were extraordinary events, not on the usual scale of things, and it wasn’t just firefighters who suffered huge amounts of anguish. People in the towns saw the devastation, they saw houses lost, they saw forests burn, they were impacted by smoke, feeling the psychological effect.
For the many firefighters, out there fighting deep in the forest, the trauma cut deep, the scale unimaginable, unfathomable, yet real.
“It was destroying complete animal systems; it was really existential,” Bill goes on struggling at times to find the words. “It was a thing that was bigger than just your own life - it was like the end of days. One day I was fighting the fires, and there were birds falling out of the sky, and I looked over and there was this pyroclastic cloud forming - those sorts of things affect you.”
As human beings, these things do affect us. We like to think we’re in control to some degree with regard to the weather and the environment. When something like this happens - it hits like a tsunami. “It wouldn’t have mattered how many firefighters we had on the line,” Bill adds, “there was nothing stopping that fire and something really primal seeps deep into your psyche when you realise that, and the aftermath, of course, is there for everyone to see.”
Bill wasn’t in Manyana on New Year’s Eve but when he arrived at the fire ground he described people as having ‘the 1,000-yard stare’ a faraway look of somebody who’s been almost frightened to death. “I saw that look everywhere; I probably have it too with what I have seen.”
Like many Bill Eger was disappointed with the recent state budget and believes the government did nothing to reflect the significance nor the obliteration that occurred last summer. With 80 per cent of all the forests and wildlife, of all flora and fauna within the Shoalhaven destroyed it stands as one of the largest environmental disasters to hit the planet in recent times. Conservative estimations are that over three billion animals were destroyed, killed.
The summer Australia burned, 2019-2020: A bushfire photojournalism exhibition
“I’m lost for words to understand how people can be so dismissive of the ecological cost these fires placed on our environmental systems. It needs to be addressed in the way that preserves what is left here and programmes put in place to understand what we lost.”
“We picked up a little feathertail glider the other day that we found so we know they are in this Manyana Beach Estate site,” Bill says, “and yet if you look at the map of the Black Summer Fires, 80 per cent of habitat was destroyed. So if you lose 80 per cent of a species overnight, it’s got to have a profound effect on those species.”
Bill believes not enough is being done to adequately address mental health issues and the trauma of people losing their homes, their experience of living through the bushfires and the devastation of the fauna and flora losses. “I look around here at Manyana and I see how connected people are to the bush, that’s why so many people live here, and that destruction of wildlife is a very palpable part of their mental state.”
“If we could see the government coming in and saying yes we acknowledge this, yes we need to protect what we have, we would feel reassured. But instead, our small little associations have to stand up to fight for this last little bit of unburnt territory. All these endangered species and we still have to fight for it. It’s just such a sad, sad, desperate time for it not to be acknowledged.”
“I really fear for future generations. I would love my little eight-year-old stepdaughter to grow up and live in a place that has access to forests, and she can see beautiful creatures like the feathertail glider and the sugar gliders, the birds. But the way things are going with climate change, I think this is only a taste really of what’s to come.”
Sheree Cole lives in Manyana and was there during the bushfires last summer. She is part of the group Manyana Matters.
“Definitely the piece of land that we’re fighting for has been something that’s helped people here to heal.” Sheree told me. “We have to drive through that horrendous road with the forest still a long way from being recovered if it ever will be. We have to drive in and out past that reminder to get to work, to go anywhere, so to come back to our little village and have that green space has been so essential to people healing.”
“I can’t stress that enough - we need that habitat to remain for a lot of reasons and for hope for the future. It’s about not seeing any more destruction in an area that’s only recently been annihilated.”
One of the things that has come out of the surveys is that the community wants to see action on climate change. “It’s really devastating for us what’s gone down in Shoalhaven Council this week with the ultra-conservative council refusing even to acknowledge that climate change is a factor in what we experienced last summer. And that doesn’t help people to feel more prepared for the future. In fact, it feels quite helpless.”
Sheree told me she had known there would be extreme fires last summer. “My partner is a National Parks and Wildlife firefighter, so we were very aware that fires were coming. We were on high alert from the moment the fire started knowing that nothing was working to put the fires out. He was coming home with stories of the fires up north doing things that fires had never done before, and we knew the conditions leading up to last summer were horrendous. The forest was like nothing we’ve ever seen before, so there was an impending sense of doom.”
“I was working in holiday rentals at the time and there seemed to be a lot of complacency about the risks that were coming and everyone wanting to move forward with life as normal. But it felt inevitable the fires would reach us at some point. Unfortunately, right when the village was full of people, at capacity.”
“We need to create a climate-resilient community that can potentially survive these events that we will face in the future. My biggest challenge in getting through the milestones of one year, is going to be that dialogue coming up again that it’s not related to the climate but is somehow related to a lack of hazard reduction burning.”
“It feels like we can’t actually engage in proper action until people are prepared to have the necessary conversations and create the necessary change to be more prepared in the future.”
“I have a ten-year-old and a 14-year-old. I think my 14-year-old very much ignored how terrified she was at the time and is only just starting to acknowledge that. She’s doing all her schoolwork based around her experiences of the fires. I think both my children are feeling really scared for their futures due to climate change and the complete inaction. It’s hard to answer their questions about whether or not they will have fires threatening them again. It’s a big challenge.”
“I feel like I must be truthful to them that we must look for ways to be more resilient to the conditions that will come again.”
Sheree tells me both her children were in Manyana during the fire and describes how surreal the time was because of the intense focus traumatic situations create around you.
“One of the quite strange things I’ve realised is how focused I was during the fires on being strong enough to stand and fight myself, but I can’t even really remember my children during the fires. We moved them to a house that was safer than ours, but I can’t even really remember them.”
“They are still deeply traumatised; I suppose we all are. My son just asked, why is it that I have to grow up in a time like this? He said, by the time I’m a grown up I might not even have a future. It’s so unfair”
“It’s hard, especially when I feel like there’s a deliberate shift away from the conversations we need to have based around climate change.”
Getting the assistance needed for community healing
The MMEA plans to share the survey findings with organisations providing mental health support to those impacted by the fires. The group is considering a range of activities to run in 2021 to aid further recovery in the community.
Jorj Lowrey says the community won’t give up and are determined to protect the one little patch of forest that means so much to them all. “Giving up is not an option, this is not just about the animals, it's also about people - for everyone in this community. People are at breaking point, so we have to win this one. Lives depend on it.”
The New Bush Telegraph acknowledges that the bushfires and the prospect of further clearing of habitat is having a profound impact on the mental health of people within our community and beyond. We encourage those experiencing distress to reach out to friends and family or to Beyond Blue on 1300 22 46 36 or LifeLine on 13 11 14 for support.
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