Editorial. The human cost of bushfires.

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Peter Whiting

Images of the devastating bushfires which ravaged the Eastern States over summer have been seared into the Australian consciousness. The spontaneous generosity of Australians not directly affected by the fires is testimony to the empathy evoked by the disaster. Millions of dollars in donations have been raised to help those who have lost so much. Governments have set up disaster recovery funds and mechanisms for distribution to those most in need. But dollars alone will not be sufficient.

Much attention is being directed to how these funds should be dispensed. Understandably, there is a focus on providing first a ready source of income to enable those affected to sustain themselves. After that, the focus is on asset replacement. Destroyed homes, buildings, and fencing need to be replaced, pastures need to be restored, and livestock reintroduced. We must, however, not forget the human cost of these fires. Supports need to go well beyond the physical losses specifically to address the trauma and emotional legacy. 

Most Victorians will remember the Black Saturday bushfires in Victoria on 7 February 2009, when local communities in Kinglake, Yarra Glen, Whittlesea, Marysville, and Healesville were left reeling with losses that included 173 dead, 5000 people injured, over 2000 homes destroyed, and countless animals killed. The emotional cost of these devastating fires is not really understood by those not directly affected. We move on quickly, but victims cannot always do so.

In a report prepared at the behest of SPC’s sister organisation, the Yarra Institute for Religion & Social Policy, Dr Lisa Jacobson surveyed the clergy and pastoral workers who responded on the ground to the human crisis. The resulting publication, Working with Disaster: Clergy & Bushfires, addressed the experiences of clergy and their observations on support mechanisms for victims and their supporters. (Copies are available from Social Policy Connections office for $10.) Many recommendations were made, but significantly there was a call for “long term pastoral and practical care”.

Those responsible for allocating funds will need clear plans to deal with the trauma experienced by so many. As Dr Jacobson identified, recovery after trauma is not cured but healed; it requires putting back together what has been torn apart. Funds to help this process will be necessary for many years to come.

With the bushfires still firmly in our minds, several articles in this newsletter discuss the climate change debate in Australia:

Contributing to the discussion around homelessness in Australia, Hal Pawson, Judith Yates, and Vivien Milligan observe in Australia’s housing system needs a big shake up: here’s how we can crack this that there is no ‘business as usual’ option, and that significant policy change must be adopted if things are to improve.

On the 75th anniversary of the liberation of the Auschwitz concentration camp, Stefan Gigacz recalls the contributions of two social activists who founded the YCW movement, Paul Garcet and Paul Tonnet. They were killed by the Nazis because of their activities in the YCW defending the rights of workers.

Photo Backburning 2009. robdownunder. flickr,cc.
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