For everyone Running on adrenaline: managing bushfire recovery in schools

Photo: Billy Draper

As for many communities in the region, the bushfire risk started early for Buchan, after lightning strikes ignited a series of fires in East Gippsland during late November. “We had to close for days or half days in Term 4 to ‘watch and act’ or deal with road closures,” says Buchan Primary School principal Sarah Walker.

Things worsened on New Year’s Eve when bushfires swept across Victoria’s east, causing unprecedented devastation. Smaller fires continued, with repeated evacuations for several towns, throughout December and January.

“We’ve had a pretty horrendous summer,” says Sarah. “People in our community who should’ve been looking forward to having a break never had that in the end, because they were either fighting the fires as volunteers or evacuating or, after the fires, dealing with the recovery process, sorting through donations or fixing their properties, trying to restore their lives.”

At a recent AEU PCA meeting in Bairnsdale, principals reported that pupil-free time in January usually reserved for planning and preparation had been largely taken up with bushfire recovery. Many principals in affected regions say they have “been running on adrenaline” for months.

While they are quick to express their gratitude for the support they have received – from the department, various agencies, other schools and the broader community – managing the influx has become almost a full-time job in itself.

“The support has been truly amazing, we’re so grateful and appreciative of the generosity,” says Sarah. “But for small schools like ours, where principals have also got teaching responsibilities, it’s a lot of added work. Managing donations and visitors and support means I’ve been working back till 6.30 or 7 most nights.”

“Our kids see school as a safe place of routine and normality. But a lot of us have been running on adrenaline since December.”

Cann River P-12 College principal Bruce Spink says external support for his school has “been wonderful, and at times overwhelming and sometimes misdirected”.

“The fires began here in the last days of December, and many have been running on adrenaline right through February,” says Bruce. “Lots of tiredness, and the complex elements will influence us throughout the year.”

Sarah Walker is also seeing “a lot of families and kids who are very tired” among the Buchan school community. “For our kids, just being at school and being with their friends is what they crave. They see school as a safe place of routine and normality. But a lot of us have been running on adrenaline since December.”

She says the regional department has been very supportive, checking in and providing information and running principal forums. The EPA set up an air monitor at the school, they’ve had regular visits from the CFA, as well as support from the AEU.

Various Melbourne schools have sent supplies, established pen pals and invited Buchan PS students to join in their school camp. One community member made an individual library bag for every child at the school, complete with books.

A community member made a library bag for every Buchan PS student. Photo: Sarah Walker

“Until you actually saw and heard how ferocious it was… people had never experienced anything like it.”

Sarah says one of the best initiatives was a forum for parents and community members held at the school with guest speakers from people, including a teacher, psychologist and principal of Strathewen Primary School, Jane Hayward.

“It was so informative for the community to hear from people who went through the Kinglake fires [in 2009]. That’s making a big difference to how we’re coping, as nobody knew what to expect – the amount of support and advice on what signs to look out for, what might still come up in the coming weeks and months.”

She says staff are seeing the psychological effects on children and families of the stress of evacuating, becoming separated from family members, relying on temporary accommodation and not knowing if homes and livestock had survived.

“It’s been about two months since the fires and, whilst the children in our school didn’t lose homes, they did lose livestock and they did experience the psychological damage and stress of the fires. From the evacuation centre, they saw the fires coming down the hill from the township. That’s the story the kids are telling us. Until you actually saw and heard how ferocious it was… people had never experienced anything like it.”

A scene in Buchan after the bushfires. Photo: Sarah Walker

Principal Paul Jorgensen, currently on long service leave from Hazelwood North Primary School, says principals in Far East Gippsland have been having breakfast meetings on a weekly basis to check in with each other and offer support.

“I am concerned about the extra stress imposed on principals and staff in these areas as they’ve all been involved in the bushfire issues in many different ways, some as CFA volunteers, some opening up their schools for CFA and Defence Force personnel, all with their own properties under threat and evacuations of themselves or families,” says Paul, who lives in Marlo.

“Principals have not really had a holiday or time to ready themselves for the new year, which started all too quickly after the fires.”Amid all this, staff have remained focused on the needs of their students.

Bruce Spink says that while Cann River itself was “lucky” when it came to the Gippsland fire, it was a traumatic experience for people in the area. At one point, fire threatened the school, which was housing more than a hundred people as the local Neighbourhood Safer Place, and the evacuations and separations were harrowing for some, he says.

“In the week before the school term began, we were able to catch up with most families and many students. We identified which students may be of concern and we thought it was manageable, with the very caring and student-centred staff we have,” says Bruce.

They followed research and ‘normalised’ the school, whilst welcoming all stories and staying alert to students’ behaviour, sharing any observations at staff briefings. “The first student days were very bright and open,” says Bruce. “Department bushfire support staff visited … and students saw it was very natural to share stories.”

Clifton Creek Primary School was tragically destroyed by bushfire on New Year's Eve. Photo: Billy Draper

Buchan Primary School staff were also checking in with students and their parents throughout January. “We needed to have that personal contact to hear their story and see what support needs to be put in place,” Sarah says.

“We’ve started to follow up again, due to some of the behaviour we’re noticing –  little things like crying for no reasons, or being more sensitive than usual. Listening to those stories, and the extra outside support, has made a huge difference. We feel that we can recognise the signs and know what to expect.”

The upside, principals say, is the positive community spirit and deepened levels of trust among those in the affected regions.

“Conversations with locals generally lead to the most understanding, and laughter about how hard it is to explain!” Bruce says. “At the school, we really feel for our friends, colleagues and anyone, really, in Mallacoota and elsewhere who have lost property, livelihood and those things which support their way of life.”

Mallacoota P-12 College oval during the bushfires. Photo: Helen Prytherch

The AEU contacted schools in Gippsland and North East Victoria at the start of the year to check on members’ welfare and to make them aware of the union’s bushfire relief fund. Branch secretary Erin Aulich visited schools around the state, including Mallacoota P-12 and Clifton Creek Primary School, tragically destroyed by fire on New Year’s Eve, to hand over union donations and speak to members.

“Principals say they’ve felt really supported by the department and SEIL and regional staff – but the main thing they need is more time,” says Erin. “The department has put resources into mental health support for students, but it’s also needed for staff.”

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