Bushfire communities embrace long-term social impact study 


Communities recovering from bushfires have embraced an ongoing five-year study that is being progressively shaped by their feedback.
More than 1000 people completed an intensive survey of the social impact of the 2009 Victorian bushfires – a response seen as a “huge endorsement” by the researchers from the Jack Brockhoff Child Health and Wellbeing Program at the McCaughey VicHealth Centre for Community Wellbeing.
This five-year, longitudinal research that started in 2010 is a world first in investigating how the devastation of a community through bushfire impacts the recovery of individual residents.
The McCaughey Centre is part of the Melbourne School of Population and Global Health at the University of Melbourne. A $1.3 million ARC Linkage grant is funding the study.
After two years of closely consulting 24 communities, the Beyond Bushfires study team were highly gratified by the response to recruitment and the 99 per cent completion rate of the survey, according to one of the lead researchers, Dr Lisa Gibbs. “I saw it as a huge endorsement. It showed that the research was important to the community.”
Beyond Bushfires aims to fill important gaps in knowledge about disaster recovery, including the links between individual and community wellbeing, the influence of social connections on recovery and resilience and the particular experiences and needs of children and adolescents.
“To my knowledge, everyone completed the survey and we had no complaints about the study, although it covered very sensitive areas, including the loss of loved ones,” she said. “Clearly, the feedback we received from the community in shaping the study had helped us to ensure the questions were relevant to them.” Obtaining that feedback took enormous commitment from the Beyond Bushfire researchers, who are also collaborating with other universities, government, emergency and local organisations. Electoral rolls, local and regional media outlets, community agencies, on-site town meetings and direct marketing approaches were among the strategies employed to gently alert residents to the study and to seek their input and participation. Privacy laws made it even more challenging to reach residents who had since moved away, but their input was also sought.
“Because we went in and said, ‘we want to do this in partnership with you, we want your thoughts on how we do it and to stay in touch all the way through’, they were really comfortable with the project,” said Dr Gibbs.
Communities felt that it was appropriate that a major university would conduct this type of research, she said, because they felt that valuable knowledge could be drawn from these devastating events. The survey will be repeated again in 2014 to capture changes in health, wellbeing and social connections. Questions included in this first survey as a result of community feedback included distinctly personal topics: spirituality, attachment to place, and animals.
Dr Gibbs said the study would provide direction about where services need to be provided at different stages of the recovery process, in the wake of a natural disaster. It could also inform life-changing decisions by individuals about their own futures. “The relationships we’re seeing between mental health outcomes and levels of community attachment could also help residents to decide, for example, whether they should stay on or move out,” she said.
Caption: Early regrowth on a tree trunk after the 2009 Victorian bushfires. The Beyond Bushfires study team is consulting 24 communities affected by the bushfires.