The Long Road Ahead For Queensland's Fire-Ravaged Towns
Dead animals, the smell of burnt bush, and rotten food in the fridge. These are the signs volunteers want residents to prepare for as they return to their homes ravaged by fire.
For Collin Sivalingum, State Manager For Red Cross Emergency Services, this is among his team's most critical work.
"These people's whole environments have changed since they left," he told 10 daily.
READ MORE: Queensland Bushfire Evacuees Head Home
As the cars moved towards Deepwater and Baffle Creek -- roads dotted with yellow and red balloons thanking firefighters -- Red Cross volunteers and Queensland Police walked alongside them.
Winding down his window, one resident, Jose Delvalle, told 10 News First he was "anxious" and did not know what he was driving home to.
"It takes the legs out from under you," said Robyn Bridges.
This was only the start of a long and anxious recovery.
"We notice that in the next couple of weeks, as people get back home and the disaster response is reduced, both volunteers and residents will start to process what has happened," Sivalingum said.
"They've been operating in survival mode on high levels of adrenaline and now the reality kicks in. It's very common to feel quite stressed."
In a disaster, trained Red Cross volunteers offer psychological first aid, reconnect families and assist in critical recovery.
Since November 22, hundreds of bushfires have scorched more than a million hectares of land in central and southern Queensland in "unprecedented conditions" that repeatedly broke containment lines and destroyed several homes.
While Sivalingum has coordinated emergency responses of this scale before, he -- like others -- said the crisis was unprecedented.
"In Queensland, we're used to responding to cyclones and floods, and from a community perspective, people have an eye level of resilience in the sense that they can plan for these types of disasters," he said.
"When a bushfire comes through, it is so unpredictable that planning becomes a challenge -- especially when you evacuate communities at 2am."
It was here, in community halls, churches and schools dotted across the state, that trained volunteers were stationed to offer information and support.
At Miriam Vale Centre, where residents stayed as the Deepwater fire burned for up to a fortnight, Sivalingum noticed high levels of anxiety.
"People wanted to go back but it wasn't safe, so we had to wait for approval," he said.
"Not knowing when or what they were going back to creates a lot of stress from day one."
Now that residents have begun to return home, his team's work is paying off. But it has come at a cost.
"This has taken a toll on the entire emergency services sector," Sivalingum said.
"People are tired, especially volunteers and NGOs who have being returning from normal work to battle a fire or manage an evacuation centre," he said.
And there's a long road ahead, as the Red Cross kicks into long-term recovery.
In the coming days and weeks, teams will check in with about 2000 people who have registered their whereabouts online after leaving their homes.
"At the beginning, it was all about survival. Now we're looking at replacement, financial assistance and insurance," he said.
As the recovery gets underway, the government is looking for answers. Prime Minister Scott Morrison has backed calls for an inquiry into whether Queensland's land clearing laws fuelled the crisis.
He has supported calls by Nationals Senator and Northern Australian Minister Matt Canavan for an independent inquiry.
But right now, locals care about getting their communities back on track.
Sivalingum warned the next stage is "a marathon, not a sprint".
"Every community is different; some will bounce back quickly, but others that haven't experienced this type of event before will take a long time," he said.
"You need to give yourself and those around you time to process this. There's a lot of people going through it, there's a lot of support and it's okay to ask for help."
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Featured image: AAP