Bega MP Andrew Constance says the bushfire emergency has forced him to reset his approach to politics. Photo: Adam McLean

Bega MP Andrew Constance says the bushfire emergency has forced him to reset his approach to politics. Photo: Adam McLean

MP's fears for mental wellbeing of bushfire survivors

'If I could walk away I would': how bushfire disaster has changed how Andrew Constance does politics

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The flames have subsided but danger still stalks the burnt zone. Communities now face a psychological battleground.

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The flames have subsided but danger still stalks the burnt zone. Communities now face a psychological battleground. 

Andrew Constance looks broken but not beaten. His eyes carry shadows too deep for a man in his forties, his face is drawn and his voice crackles with frustration and exhaustion.

"If I could walk away I would," says the Bega MP of the politics he has lived and breathed since 2003. "But I can't because a lot of people need help."

As it has for thousands of others caught up in it, the fire emergency has forced a reset for the NSW Transport Minister.

His electorate, which extends from Durras in the north of the NSW South Coast, to the Victorian border and out over the Great Dividing Range to the west, has been hit particularly hard.

At the height of the emergency, there was scarcely any of it that wasn't blacked out.

Nelligen, Mogo, Runnyford, Currowan, Catalina, Surf Beach, Cobargo, Quaama, Kiah, Wyndham, Bemboka, Tantawangalo, Wonboyn, Eden ... the roll call of towns. Villages and localities in Andrew's electorate hit hard by fire is too long to list here.

He does not shy from revealing how traumatised he's been by what he has seen since fire tore out of the hills on New Year's Eve, and that he's sought help for his mental wellbeing.

Read more: How a community rises from the flames

"I saw things that day I haven't spoken of publicly. The day was very lonely. I spent 90 per cent of it by myself, most of the time wondering if I was going to end up dead. And then to experience what I did down at Malua Bay Beach with hundreds and hundreds of people - it was terrible," he says.

He defended his own home for as long as he could. Later, down on the beach as the firestorm approached, it seemed to suck all the oxygen out of the atmosphere. His house survived. Many of his neighbours' homes did not.

The sky changes colour at Mollymook and Ulladulla as burnt leaves start to fall on the beach. Picture: Supplied

The sky changes colour at Mollymook and Ulladulla as burnt leaves start to fall on the beach. Picture: Supplied

"To be able to go to trauma counselling and talk about all that was really important. And to do it with someone who's objective, not someone who you necessarily know, is important."

His counsellor did not recommend rest but quite the opposite. "It was just, 'Keep working at it. Keep turning up each day. Keep pushing the limits in terms of what you can try and achieve'."

So, while he says he would like to step away from politics, that's not possible. But changing the way he does politics is.

"I got my politics wrong. The outlook was very scripted, very adversarial in a way. I don't care for it. [The fire emergency] has changed me. That probably sends some concerns through our political leadership in this country, but I don't care."

An RFS volunteer works to battle a bushfire on Murramaranf Road in Bawley Point in December. Photo: Sitthixay Ditthavong

An RFS volunteer works to battle a bushfire on Murramaranf Road in Bawley Point in December. Photo: Sitthixay Ditthavong

When Scott Morrison was booed out of Cobargo, Mr Constance said the PM probably got what he deserved. When the Red Cross revealed it had only distributed a portion of bushfire donations, he applied the blowtorch.

And he's continued to rail at the bureaucratic roadblocks placed in front of suffering communities, especially the small businesses that uphold their economies.

He fears the fabled stoicism of the bush will do more harm than good.

"We absolutely must cut through that bullshit. Because if we don't then we're going to lose more lives."

Read more: Supporting small business more important than ever

He fears an epidemic of depression if people don't get help for the trauma caused by the fires, whether they were directly affected or watching from afar.

"We all saw stuff on that day, it wouldn't matter if we were in the front of the fire or we were watching it on our televisions. Don't suffer in silence, come forward."

The road to recovery is more like a rollercoaster and now the adrenaline has subsided, it's heading into a big dipper. The arc of disaster is entering a dangerous downward trajectory.

Greg Webb, who lost his home at Conjola Park, has always been positive in the face of adversity but fears the fire emergency will test his resilience. Photo: Adam McLean

Greg Webb, who lost his home at Conjola Park, has always been positive in the face of adversity but fears the fire emergency will test his resilience. Photo: Adam McLean

In Conjola Park, in the neighbouring South Coast electorate, which lost 89 homes on New Year's Eve, Greg Webb is standing in front of the ruins of his house.

"We lost our beautiful family home. The happiest place in my life is there on the verandah with friends, listening to music and drinking wine."

Still, he's remarkably upbeat.

"I've always been a glass half full type guy," he says. He's faced adversity before; five close family members have been lost to suicide. But this fire is different and he fears what will happen when what he calls the disaster honeymoon period comes to an end.

There are challenges ahead, he says. Cleaning up the site, getting approval to rebuild, then the rebuild itself. The national attention will shift, the incredible support he's had so far will subside.

"In about three months, that's when I'm going to have some battles. They will come. I don't know how I'm going to handle them but I think vocalising helps."

Lindy and Peter Dunn, who stepped up to lead the community recovery effort at Lake Conjola. Photo: Adam McLean

Lindy and Peter Dunn, who stepped up to lead the community recovery effort at Lake Conjola. Photo: Adam McLean

A few kilometres down the road at Lake Conjola, retired major general Peter Dunn and his wife Lindy are also talking about the arc of disaster.

Peter led the recovery effort after the 2003 Canberra fires.

He's also one of the group of former fire and emergency chiefs who warned the federal government about the coming disastrous bushfire season last year.

When the New Year's Eve inferno arrived, he found himself at the centre of the community-led relief effort. He has hardly caught his breath since.

"The road was closed, we lost power, we lost internet, we lost the telephone of course. We found that we were totally cut off from the outside world.

Lake Conjola bears the bushfire scars. Photo: Adam McLean

Lake Conjola bears the bushfire scars. Photo: Adam McLean

"There's not a single person in Conjola, Conjola Park or surrounding villages like Fishermens Paradise that has not been severely impacted psychologically by what happened here. It was ferocious."

Peter has been in combat operations but what he and his community faced on New Year's Eve and in the weeks following was completely different.

"Nothing compares to when you have three fire fronts hammering down on you and you realise your life is in serious danger, that the life of your wife is in serious danger and you've got to do something to get out of that situation."

After the forced evacuation of tourists, a meeting was called when it became obvious the community was on its own. Peter and Lindy arrived late.

"When we walked up, one of our dear friends said, 'There they are. Peter will do it. Lindy will help. They know about this stuff.' What do you do? Of course you help."

The community-led recovery and relief centre was born and has been operating ever since.

Mental health was front and centre from the outset. "All of us were traumatised, no qualms about that," says Peter.

He is a firm believer in community-led recovery being part of the healing process. It's better to be involved in the recovery than wait for someone else to lead it.

"Even people who have lost their homes want to be able to help, to be part of the recovery," says Lindy.

And because Peter and Lindy and the volunteers engaged in the recovery effort are local, they're here for the long haul. And there's no doubting it will be long.

Praising the mental health effort provided by the NSW Government, Peter says even a couple of them found the outreach work too confronting and were sent home suffering from their own trauma.

"We're here, we're permanent we're not going anywhere," says Peter.

Lifeline has launched a 24-hour, seven-day-a-week dedicated bushfire recovery support line: 13 HELP or 13 43 57.

Beyond Blue: 1300 22 4636

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