BY ROSLYN JAGUAR
PHOTOS BY NICKI CONNOLLY
February 2019 marks the 10-year anniversary of the 2009 Victorian bushfires, one of the worst natural disasters in the state’s history. Police Life spoke to two police officers in Marysville and Kinglake about the devastation of the bushfires and the renewal and recovery of their communities.
PART I: LEADING SENIOR CONSTABLE MARK WILLIAMS, KINGLAKE [Pictured above at Frank Thomson Reserve, Kinglake Central]:
“Totally different place, totally different vibe.”
That’s how Kinglake’s Leading Senior Constable Mark Williams describes his town, about 55 kilometres north-east of Melbourne, in the years following the 2009 bushfires.
He said policing in Kinglake and surrounding townships had changed dramatically since the Black Saturday blaze ripped through, leaving little standing in its wake.
“Kinglake Police Station doesn’t have just one town, we have Kinglake, Kinglake West, Flowerdale, Glenburn and Toolangi,” Ldg Sen Const Williams said.
“Each town has its own flavour – they’re all completely different places.
“And they’ve changed a hell of a lot since the fires.”
He said call-outs to family violence incidents dropped dramatically in the five years following the devastating blaze – “people survived the fires and decided there was more to life, so if they were thinking about separating, they did it” – and the crime rate had plummeted.
But mental health issues, drug and alcohol problems and welfare concerns had become more prevalent.
“It was more community support than old-style policing,” Ldg Sen Const Williams said.
”We were a steady presence and, as a result, the community really got behind us.”
Ldg Sen Const Williams was due to start his shift at Kinglake at 6pm on the eve of Black Saturday, but fire hampered the trip from his Warrandyte home.
”I got to St Andrews and a fireball landed just up in front of me on the road,” he said.
His efforts to scout around the fire and reach the town proved futile, so he drove to nearby Whittlesea, where he helped out in the watchhouse.
”I was frustrated that I couldn’t get to Kinglake but in some ways it was good that I was there (at Whittlesea) because a lot of locals from my area were calling there,” Ldg Sen Const Williams said.
”I was a familiar voice and I knew the area so I could talk to people.”
Ldg Sen Const Williams spent the following days and weeks combing through the ruins of Kinglake for victims of the blaze.
”There were streets where there was nothing left,” he said.
”Sometimes it feels like it was a lifetime ago, other times it feels like it all happened last week.”
He said Kinglake had grown enormously since the fires, with new estates bringing young families to the area.
”The town is forever changed,” Ldg Sen Const Williams said.
“We still have flow-on effect[s] from the fires and we’re probably going to have that for another five years or so, but the impact for the area has gotten less and less as the years go on and the wounds heal.
“The impact on the individuals, including police members is still surfacing from time to time.”
Lifeline: 13 11 14 or lifeline.org.au
Beyond Blue: 1300 224 636 or beyondblue.org.au
Victoria Police Wellbeing Services: (03) 9247 3344 (For Victoria Police employees and immediate family members only).
This article was orginally published in Police Life (Summer 2019 edition) and re-published in the public interest.