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As Australia burns, memories come flooding back

Introduction by Croakey: Canberra is home to many health and medical organisations and health sector leaders, many of whom have lived experience of the traumatic impacts of this horrific summer and the climate bushfire crisis.

For Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander health professionals, as for their wider communities, the devastation of Country is causing deep grief (don’t miss this powerful essay by Vanessa Cavanagh, This grandmother tree connects me to Country. I cried when I saw her burned).

For Melanie Robinson, CEO of the Congress of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Nurses and Midwives (CATSINaM), the bushfires have brought back some painful memories, as well as reflections upon the importance of cultural knowledge in prevention and recovery efforts.


Melanie Robinson writes:

In recent months, bushfires across Australia have caused me to reflect on a sense of powerlessness, my overwhelming feelings of sadness, and my wish to help the communities affected.

In recent days, I have watched as bushfires approach closer to Canberra, where I have been living for the past year.

Even before then, like other Canberra residents, I have been impacted by the toxic smoke and pollution created by the million’s hectares of forest that have burnt.

My sadness about these events comes from a deep connection to Country, which comes from being of Aboriginal descent on my father’s side.

I was raised in a remote community in Western Australia called Nullagunda, which was a part of my family and originally a cattle station before being returned to the Traditional Owners in 1984.

As a child, I remember hearing the stories and learning the ways in which the land and Country were maintained by the Traditional Owners and the Elders.

My grandfather was a non-Indigenous man who married an Aboriginal woman and as a result he knew that he needed to maintain a strong relationship with the Aboriginal People who had links to the area. Of course they used traditional practices to care for and maintain the Country, and this included fire burning and management of the wildlife including dingoes and kangaroos.

My grandfather ran the property as a cattle station; however, the care for the Country relied on the knowledge and expertise of the Traditional Owners and to this day there is a deep respect in that area for all those still linked in a spiritual way to that Country.

Photographs supplied by Melanie Robinson of the Country where she grew up

Respect cultural knowledge

More recently, I remember meeting a Traditional Owner at Margaret River in the south of Western Australia, when I attended an Aboriginal cultural immersion program in the area. She shared a story about a huge bushfire that had destroyed forest and properties the year before, in 2011.

This Aboriginal woman talked about the frustrations her community had felt when they had been warning the Margaret River Shire about the risk of a catastrophic bushfire. They had offered to provide advice to the Conservation and Land Management team about traditional burning practices and ways to reduce the fire load and reduce the impact to the forest and the wildlife in the area.

However, their knowledge and expertise was rejected, and in 2011 the severe bushfire caused untold damage to properties the forest and the wildlife.

Traditional burning and land management practices will save people, properties, ancient trees and wildlife and allows the forest to regenerated much quicker than the ferocious fires, which are currently happened.

At this point I do want to declare that I am not an expert in fire management and bush fires. Using traditional burning and land management would need to be a part of a broader plan, which includes dealing with these disasters.

I would like to acknowledge the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities and the broader Australian people who have been directly impacted by the recent events. 

Reach out

Please look after each other and your neighbours and be aware that the emotional scars of any natural disaster continue beyond the events and can cause trauma for a long time. Ask for help and allow time to heal.

As a young graduate nurse in the early 1990’s I volunteered in the local fire brigade in Derby in Western Australia.

During my two years in that role, a number of incidents, including bushfires and motor vehicle accidents, left me with flashbacks and trauma.

My hospital colleagues often asked me why I was so traumatised. I told them at the time that is different to seeing trauma in a hospital, where you are surrounded by other health professionals and medical equipment.

To all the volunteer fire brigade officers, I know that when you are in the thick of it, there is no time to reflect or process the events that are happening.

However, once the crisis is all over, make sure you seek support beyond the other volunteers and the local community.

The scars you carry may take a long time to heal and what you are experiencing may stay with you for a long time.

• Melanie Robinson is CEO of CATSINaM

Bookmark this link to track Croakey’s coverage of the bushfire crisis.

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