In February of 2009, the province of Victoria, Australia experienced record setting temperatures, precluded by nearly a decade of drought: setting unprecedented conditions for wildfires. On the seventh day of the month, temperatures peaked at 117 degrees Fahrenheit (47 degrees Celsius) and a blaze was sparked by the falling of electrical wiring. Winds quickly spread the flames across the province, destroying 173 lives and nearly 2,000 homes over the course of “Black Saturday”.
In the years following the fires, communities picked themselves up and began to rebuild. In 2016, a five-year research study, “Beyond Bushfires” was released by the University of Melbourne, assessing individual and community recovery following the fires. University of Melbourne Professor and Director of the Jack Brockhoff Child Health and Wellbeing Program Dr. Lisa Gibbs and Australian Red Cross National Recovery Advisor Kate Brady visited the Global Resilience Institute on October 16, to share some of the findings and for a broader discussion on community resilience.
“Beyond Bushfires” began as a research foundation with the mission to improve efforts to support recovery after disaster. The initiative aimed to assess the mental health impacts of natural disaster, looking to discover how long the effects lasted. Developed in partnership with first responders to capture the complexity of the response, “Beyond Bushfires” incorporated the participation of groups such as the Australian Red Cross. Research began three years following the bushfires, and consisted of questionnaires, interviews, and site visits. Participants were followed up with at three two-year intervals to assess their changes in mental health and community well-being.
Dr. Gibbs and the Beyond Bushfires found social ties as helping mental health and community wellbeing. Similarly, involvement in local community groups and organizations were associated with more positive mental health and wellbeing outcomes, especially for those who lived alone. These effects cascaded into the community level—not only did individuals benefit from being more involved in community groups, but also individuals not participating in community groups yet living within highly networked communities.
During the visit with GRI, National Recovery Advisor Kate Brady shared the role of the Australian Red Cross in responding to the disaster and their participation in the Beyond Bushfires study. The organization helped to target certain data sets of interest or questions related to policy and practice, connected afflicted communities or governmental agencies to research, and delivered services informed by research.
The findings demonstrated simple yet concrete methods of strengthening community resilience—by increasing community group involvement. With this in mind, policymakers and community members can provide support for local groups as a means of promoting local and social connections. In enabling these outlets, individuals and communities can better increase their resilience and improve mental health outcomes in the face of modern disruptions.