For Survivors


by Liz Tilley, Canberra

9 February 2009

As a survivor of the January 2003 firestorm in Canberra, my heart goes out to those who have lost loved ones, homes, pets, and a lifetime of memories in the tragic Victorian fires.

As I sit watching TV news coverage, with my heart racing and my body shaking slightly as I remember the fear, the flames, the heat, the smoke and the knowledge that I would probably not get out alive; I also remember in the days, weeks and months after the fires what support we needed and valued.

The victims of the Victorian fires are coping with the loss of homes, possession, pets and property as well as trying to cope with immense grief.

A great relief effort is one that is based on the experiences of previous disaster situations, and yet, after the Canberra bushfires, we were so often ‘re-inventing the wheel’.

I just can’t bear to see those victims in Victoria not benefit from what we learned in Canberra.

While the aid agencies will swing into action, and do what they do best, and the State and Federal government put their disaster planning into action, how can the Australian public, and the Victorian Relief Effort, help in the best way possible?

What the surviving victims need, both in terms of donations, and physical and emotional support comes will come in phases. Of course, the first weeks after the fire, in the immediate post trauma phase, these needs will be different from what they will need in six, 12 months or two years time.

So, for what it’s worth, here are my tips for a “great” relief:

Note to the Victims

Learn to receive

Most of us are great at giving help, but many people find it difficult to accept help. Take the help when it is offered and don’t be afraid to ask for what you need. For many people it can be incredibly hard to do this. While at the moment you have no choice but to accept help, it may be hard to keep accepting help months and years down the track. But you need to allow family, friends, and the wider community to give. It will make you stronger and, years from now, will be an incredible insight into what others need in times of trauma—because you’ve been there and you understand. The only way you can truly learn to help others is by accepting help yourself when you need it.


When a disaster strikes, we are reminded of the amazing generosity, kindness and compassion of others. Humans have an incredible capacity to help others in times of need. I am forever grateful to the friends, relatives, work colleagues, acquaintances and strangers who did what they could to help us in the weeks, months and years after the fires.

No matter how small the gesture, it was appreciated. One friend gave me her copy of a cookbook she knew I used all the time and I bless her every time I open that book to thumb its familiar pages. A woman who worked with my husband knew that he had bought me some pearl earrings as a present before the fires, so she gave me her favourite pearl earrings as a gift, and I bless her every time I wear them. Another friend’s son gave my son his cricket bat and ball, and I bless him every time I see the boys playing outside. A friend and former work colleague of my husband’s donated furniture, a TV and cooking utensils, and I bless her every day.

At times, despite everything, I felt buoyed by the support of all these people, by knowing they cared. And now, six years on, I still feel an enormous faith in the human spirit, our ability to survive, and the compassion and generosity we can offer each other.

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