Burnt bushland seen from an aerial perspective.
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Days before Christmas 2019, the road leading into the town of Dargan, in the Blue Mountains, west of Sydney, showed a path of destruction.
Burnt-out trees gave way to a devastated town, the which tore through the night before. Nineteen of Dargan’s 57 homes were lost, including Susan and Nick Alexander’s.
Burnt bushland seen from an aerial perspective.

The Gospers Mountain megafire destroyed dozens of buildings around the Bilpin, Dargan, Clarence and Bell areas in the Blue Mountains. Credit: Wolter Peeters

“From our house all the way down the street, seven houses in a row we were all completely devastated,” Susan Alexander told SBS News.

“And then you don’t know what to do, you don’t know what to do next.

“I remember telling my daughter that everything she had, her home was gone.”

A burnt down house with flames.

The remains of Susan and Nick Alexander’s house in Dargan. Source: Supplied / .

Last week, the , recognising the risks a changing climate poses to people’s physical and mental well-being.

Experts predict negative mental health effects will only grow as extreme weather events increase in intensity and frequency,
“After a climate disaster, there’s a high rate of traumatisation,” Sally Gillespie from the non-profit Psychology for a Safe Climate said.
“If you are in an area which is likely to have repeated disasters, whether it’s floods that return or fires … droughts, it weighs very heavily upon you.

“It really unsettles people, they go through questions of should I stay, should I go, are there ways to make this safe.”

Susan and her husband Nick wanted to stay. For more than 18 months they dedicated themselves to rebuilding their house, but the tragedy of losing their home is still raw.
“Nick and I spend more time reading between two and four am because we can’t get to sleep,” Alexander said.
“I used to have a recurring dream where I’d be standing in my old loungeroom and it would be burning around me.

“I wasn’t there — your mind and your brain has such an ability to put you places that you don’t want to be, it’s so important to have a community you can talk to.”

Community connection

From the , a new community group grew. The Association of Bell Clarence and Dargan Inc. (ABCD Inc.) has a focus on connecting residents and supporting each other.
“Our community, when I came here, felt like a community of hermits,” ABCD Inc. president Kat Boehringer said.

“It’s a nice quiet part of the world, everyone comes out here because they like their peace and quiet, which is great, but not in an emergency.”

A group of people sit in a living room.

An ABCD Inc. group meeting at Susan and Nick’s house. Source: SBS News / .

ABCD Inc. holds community events, advocates for the townships and connects locals through an email mailing list and a newsletter.

“Our group is trying to bring all our neighbours together, when people connect they get to share their stories, and that’s a part of making sense of what’s happened,” she said.
“A problem faced on your own can feel insurmountable, but together it’s a problem shared.”
Kevin McCusker lost his nursery in Dargan in the fires.
“We had a community event at the nursery and I could see that they were hurt and I really wanted to do something about that,” he said.

“So it became really important for me for us to be there for other people so we could actually help them.”

A man standing with a garden behind him.

Kevin McCusker is the treasurer of ABCD Inc. and deputy captain of the Clarence/Dargan bushfire brigade. Credit: SBS News

Sally Gillespie says community resilience is important.

“What we need is government funding for community-led initiatives, communities know what they need to look after themselves,” she said.

“What I hear from bushfire survivors, flood survivors, is a lot of people coming into the area, doing a lot of talking and not much listening.”

Building resilience

In 2019 the Hawkesbury region was threatened and devastated by severe fires, and in the years following, experienced several extreme floods.
In response to these repeated adversities, the North Richmond Community Centre in Greater Western Sydney holds a weekly opportunity for locals to have a chat and get to know each other.

“I think community centres play an essential part in connecting the community, in building and sustaining a resilient and strong community and just for people’s mental health and well-being,” North Richmond Community Centre manager Birgit Walter told SBS News.

A woman stands in front of a table with people sitting at it.

Birgit Walter is the manager of North Richmond Community Centre. Source: SBS News / .

Local resident Stephanie Hanekom attends the centre’s Cafe Connections each week.

“[You] get a different perspective on life, it’s not about the crisis you’re in, it’s more about ‘come as you are’,” she said.
“Talk about it … I think it’s really important for everyone.”
The Cafe Connections program ensures residents don’t need to face any kind of adversity alone.
“People feel understood, they don’t have to explain,” Walter said.
“Many people here have been through several floods, several fires, some people depending on where they live, once it starts raining the anxiety starts to rise.

“Once there’s bushfires happening or bushfire weather, the anxiety starts to rise — and people understand because we’ve all been through it.”

A problem faced on your own can feel insurmountable, but together it’s a problem shared.

Kat Boeingher, Dargan resident

, between 20-50 per cent of those who have experienced an unpredictable or severe weather event may experience elevated levels of anxiety, depression, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), suicidal ideation or sleep disruption. In the years following the disaster, 10 to 20 per cent of those may experience PTSD.
“For many people even if they and their property hasn’t been directly impacted, their friends and their family have been, so there is that sort of collective trauma,” Professor Samuel Harvey from the Black Dog Institute said.
“The flip-side to that is that when we now think about resilience we don’t think about it so much at an individual level, it operates at a group level, so where you’ve got communities that experience something together, that collectiveness is a great strength.”
With the ethos that better-connected communities are more resilient, this initiative aims to provide residents with a wider network, to help them withstand, adapt to and recover from hardship.

“We came down and made some good acquaintances and friends, which are people that we can in the future when there’s more, hopefully not too many big issues and big problems we can reach out and help, and maybe even be helped ourselves,” local resident David Cullen said.

A man in a collared shirt and a woman in a green blouse.

David and Beverley Cullen attend Cafe Connections.

His wife Beverley agrees.

“If you’re with a group of people and someone says are you okay, it can make a big difference to your day, to how you feel and not being scared and knowing someone is out there for you, or you for them,” she said.
Readers seeking support with mental health can contact Beyond Blue on 1300 22 4636. More information is available at . supports people from culturally and linguistically diverse backgrounds.

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