Whittlesea school memorialises Black Saturday loss

Whittlesea Secondary College principal Lian Davies and Member for McEwen Rob Mitchell unveiled the memorial park’s plaque.

WHITTLESEA Secondary College has officially opened its Black Saturday Memorial Garden to commemorate the 173 Australians, many from the Kinglake area, who died in the 2009 bushfires.

Opened on the 12th anniversary of Black Saturday, the garden is a symbol of the school’s emergence from the disaster.

The fire started in Kilmore East after three days of strong winds and mid-40s temperatures, devastating neighbouring areas.

Of the total death toll, 120 were from the Kinglake area, and within the school community 21 people – including four students and one teacher – died while many more lost their homes.

The garden was designed and developed by school chaplain Fran Salvestrin to complement the Black Saturday memorial rotunda and provide a tranquil place for students and staff.

College principal Lian Davies and Member for McEwen Rob Mitchell unveiled the plaque.

“May this garden always serve as a place of peace and reflection where we can remember our families and friends who perished in the fires 12 years ago,” Mr Mitchell said.

“May it also serve as a reminder to the love and care of a community that refused to crumble on our darkest day and the months and years that have followed.”

The Black Saturday fires remain the deadliest in Australia’s history, and at the time were one of the most destructive, with more than 2000 homes lost over 450,000 hectares. This number has since been eclipsed by the 2020 ‘megafires’, which destroyed more than 3000 homes and burnt 17 million hectares of land.

Though homes have been rebuilt, the trauma is ongoing.

A 2016 study by the University of Melbourne found that 22 per cent of people in high-impact areas reported symptoms of mental health disorders five years after the fires, approximately twice the rate evident in low-impact communities.

The study found that close friends, family, social networks and community groups were important influences on resilience and recovery, and that involvement in community groups and organisations was associated with more positive mental health and wellbeing outcomes.

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