Australia’s hot and dry climate generates a high bushfire risk during the summer months. While they are an essential part of Australia’s ecology, bushfires cause substantial property damage and loss of life, and can be traumatising for those affected. Two examples that are etched on our memories are the Ash Wednesday bushfires in 1983 and the Black Saturday fires of 2009, but there have been many other devastating fires over the years.


The Ash Wednesday bushfires swept across Victoria and South Australia on 16 February, 1983. Extreme weather conditions, in the context of tinder dry vegetation following years of severe drought, created one of the worst bushfires in Australian history. The speed of the fire front and the ferocity of the flames destroyed communications, cut off escape routes, and severed electricity and water supplies. The final toll was devastating: 47 deaths in Victoria and 28 in South Australia, nearly 4,000 buildings destroyed or damaged, and massive losses to livestock and native animals.


The 2009 Black Saturday bushfires hit Victoria on 7 February. Weather conditions over the preceding days had been extreme and on the day of the fires Melbourne hit over 46°C, the hottest temperature ever recorded in an Australian capital city. Winds in excess of 125 km/h helped to create the worst bushfire since European settlement. A total of 173 people died and a further 414 were injured. Over 2,000 homes were destroyed, along with 1,500 other buildings, 7,500 people were displaced, and the losses to livestock, crops, and native bushlands were enormous.


Disasters of this kind provide a powerful opportunity for communities to come together and support each other, a chance for human resilience to shine through even in the depths of tragedy. At the same time, they have the potential to cause great distress for individuals, families and communities. Bushfires are characterised by intense fear for the safety of oneself and one’s loved ones, pets and belongings. They are also characterised by huge losses – of loved ones, homes, irreplaceable personal effects and, in many cases, livelihoods. Thankfully, most people recover with the help of family and friends, but for some, the experience can result in symptoms of anxiety and depression that may last for weeks, months, or longer.