Black Saturday five years on | Emotional recover continues

Five years on from the bushfire which changed our community forever, residents living in the regenerating bush of the Latrobe Valley are empowered, vigilant and closer than ever.

Neighbours who previously had known very little about each other, are now one another’s champion, support and confidant.

The majority of homes are either rebuilt or under construction.

However, the scars remain and there is no doubt the emotional recovery continues for many.

“There is still a high sensitivity to bushfires. The smell of smoke still puts people on edge,” Hazelwood Jeeralang Community Association chair Garry Mauger said.

“There’s a high degree of consciousness remaining five years on.”

Chair of the former Traralgon South and District Community Recovery Committee Ange Gordon said the capacity to give back to other bushfire-affected communities, like those in Tasmania, had empowered residents of her region.

She said fire safety vigilance and the lasting relationships built in the aftermath of the 2009 tragedy with support and charity organisations have strengthened the Traralgon South and district community.

“If there’s another event, we’ve already got those networks established,” she said.

“I think residents have good relationships on a whole with one another.”

Ms Gordon said she hoped tomorrow night’s memorial service in Traralgon South would be a time of healing for the bereaved families of the 11 residents lost.

The deliberately-lit Churchill-Jeeralang bushfire was unstoppable.

It claimed 11 lives, injured 35 people and destroyed 145 houses.

In the five years since, there has been a Royal Commission, bushfire policy change and a heightened awareness of the risk of fire.

The Jeeralang North and Callignee halls have been rebuilt, and the Traralgon South community has established a men’s shed.

Arsonist Brendan James Sokaluk was sentenced to 17 years and nine months’ jail, with a minimum of 14 years, after being found guilty by a Supreme Court jury of arson causing death.

The State Government commissioned former chief executive of the Victorian Bushfire Reconstruction and Recovery Authority Ben Hubbard to write a report about the Black Saturday recovery process five years on.

Deputy Premier Peter Ryan said the report would be released in a “timely manner”, having particular regard to the five year anniversary.

A memorial ceremony will be held in Traralgon South on Friday 7 February to mark the five-year anniversary of Black Saturday.

From 7pm at the Phoenix Rising Sculpture on Keith Morgan Drive, wreaths will be laid in memory of those who did not survive.

Community supper will follow in the Traralgon South Hall.