Black Saturday ground zero 10 years on
ON THE drive from Whittlesea to Kinglake, the ranges have recovered.
But there are still noticeable areas with dead trees and bare areas so badly burnt it sterilised the ground.
Former local mayor Lyn Gunter says sometimes she will hear an "almighty crash" when a dead tree in the mountains falls over.
Kinglake's residents have not completely recovered either.
Ten years after bearing the brunt of Black Saturday, Kinglake looks good today. Smart new houses, kindergartens, other public buildings and a Kinglake Village shopping strip with fine dining planned gives the town a positive feel.
But there are significant pockets of people on Melbourne's outskirts with post-traumatic stress disorder, like war-torn refugees, who had ordinary lives before Black Saturday.
There were 173 people killed in Australia's deadliest bushfires a decade ago, 120 of them in the Kinglake/Whittlesea area.
Almost 50 children and young adults were orphaned.
While some fear for a generation of traumatised young people with behavioural problems, Kinglake mother Lesley Bebbington is proud of the children's recovery. Ms Bebbington, who helped form the Ellimatta Youth Inc as an intervention group for youths "whose friends died", says the area's young have done remarkably well.
"I am just proud that they (children) survived, that they got through it, I always believed they would be OK," Ms Bebbington said.
"You see them now, we have got plumbers, vets, nurses, artists, horticulturalists, doing well." Clinical psychologist Rob Gordon, who worked with Black Saturday victims and has warned it produced a much higher than usual incidence of PTSD, believes it can take 10 years to recover.
He advocates talking out anxiety and staying connected to communities to have more chances of recovering.
Gary Brown and his wife Robyn lost their son Adrian, daughter-in-law Mirabelle and grandchildren Eric, Matthew and Brielle in the fires.
Mr Brown had counselling in the early years after the fires and urged men publicly at the time to get help when he heard many victims were psychologically struggling.
"I found this attitude that men don't cry is a lot of crap," he told AAP. "We were hearing that people were attempting suicides, did eventually have suicides and felt at one stage that it needed to come out about men and bereavement."
Dean Cerneka says he still has nightmares after he spent more than 11 hours fighting for his life with his brother and mother at their Kinglake West home, while several of their Coombs Road neighbours died.
"I stood right there, we were literally seconds away from death and I saw this coming and said, 'I'm going to die'," he told AAP.
Mr Cerneka sees a psychologist who specialises in trauma.
"A lot of people are really affected by it, really, really traumatised, some acknowledge it and a lot don't and are hitting the bottle and self-medicating," he said.
Multiply that many times in a town of more than 1500 people and it leads to marriage and friendship breakdowns, according to Ms Gunter's husband Brenton.
"In the long run I think people even get upset with each other," he said, sometimes over how much grant money they were given.
Many have marked the February 9 anniversary over the years but local Donna Wilson says she has not done anything in the last couple of years and is ready to move on.
Ms Wilson and fellow local real estate agent Jodie Thorneycroft estimate more than half the town's population left after about 630 of 760 houses were destroyed.
Many people rebuilt but left anyway.
Some residents like having newcomers they don't have to talk about Black Saturday with but others worry the latest arrivals are clueless about living in a bushfire zone.
Recently residents in nearby St Andrews were furious and complained to the Country Fire Authority when it approved a fireworks display for a private party in January. "When you have new community members come in, all the dynamics change," Ms Thorneycroft said.
"People wanting a country change move here, it is a beautiful place and there was so much vacant land for obvious reasons." But as council rates soared, locals such as Ms Gunter - who was a face for the community after the fires but later quit as mayor - and John Griffiths set up a ratepayers' group that criticised the way money had been spent, including some of the record $400 million donated.
Federal and state politicians wanting to quickly "sort this disaster out" before elections were also to blame, Ms Gunter says.
Mr Griffiths says he knows a man who donated $1 million but he would never do it again "because it was badly mismanaged, with a lot of wastage".
But it was local heroes, not politicians, who saved Kinglake, Ms Gunter says. And the locals' spirit keeps the town going.
"One thing that continues now is we greet each other with a hug and that first month (after the fires), if only you could've bottled that community spirit and handed it out," she says.