The fear they face: the long-term effects of bushfires

THERE’S no doubt that being a direct victim, or a firefighter involved in a bushfire as massive as the recent Waroona-Yarloop bushfire is a distressing and demanding experience.

The fire destroyed 180 buildings and infrastructure in Yarloop, more then 70,000 hectares of land, and claimed two lives as it stormed south-west from its starting point in Lane Poole Reserve.

Witnesses say it took all of seven minutes to completely destroy most of the historical town.

Now that the fires are contained, and the victims begin taking stock of what has been lost, the immediate fear faced by those in the wake of the fire now transmutes to something more ingrained, and potentially damaging.

The issues faced by both victims and the fire and the firefighters involved will likely take on many facets, stemming from the loss of homes, jobs, loved ones and the inherent terror that comes from battling something which seems unstoppable.

Professional grief counsellor Amanda Lambros said there would be a range of emotions experienced by the victims.

“First and foremost, the people who have experienced the losses will be feeling overwhelmed, a sense of ‘where to from here’, potentially a feeling of isolation once the media hype of the loss disappears and they are left to cope with the loss,” she said.

“Loss is unique to the person experiencing the loss and each ‘griever’ experiences their own loss at 100 per cent; the symptoms of how they express that loss can be, and often is, quite different for each and every person experiencing a loss.

“What is similar is that people tend to isolate when a loss occurs as they are unsure as to whether or not someone will be willing to truly offer help. 

“Although people offer help, the person experiencing the loss may feel as though they are a burden if they seek and ask for help.”

The grief felt throughout the South West community is already palpable, but the long-term effects of how the fire will affect them will not manifest so readily.

Petra Skeffington, a Curtin University lecturer and expert on Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, said those involved with the fire may not show signs of distress for weeks after the event.

“Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) is a disorder than can emerge following exposure to an event that involved or had the threat of death, violence or serious injury,” she said.

“Adults with PTSD may relive experiences of the event, have distressing dreams about the event, avoid situations or things that remind them of the event, view themselves and the world in a negative way, lose interest in activities they used to enjoy, detach from family and friends, feel numb, irritable or angry, have difficulty sleeping of concentrating and feel constantly on guard or alert.

“It is important to note that many of these symptoms are part of the normal fear response following a threat to your life or integrity and the majority of people would experience at least some of these symptoms in the days and weeks following a major event, such as a bushfire.

“PTSD represents an enduring fear response and cannot be diagnosed less than four weeks following a major trauma.”

Dr Skeffington said PTSD was not the most likely outcome following a traumatic event like a bushfire, but that there would still be a large number of people susceptible to it, especially the firefighters directly involved with fighting it.

“Being a career firefighter involves more comprehensive training, increased competence through training and frequent use of firefighting skills and a regular and stable team, all of which are protective factors when under stress,” Dr Skeffington said.

“The nature of volunteer firefighting means that volunteers may not have the same level of training and regular team contact as career fire fighters, and it may be easier for volunteers to ‘slip through the cracks’ if they are unsure about how to ask for help when they need it.

“Volunteer firefighters are also likely to be older than the average career firefighter and more likely to be witnessing destruction or fatalities within the local or rural community in which they live.”

While Dr Skeffington said PTSD in volunteer firefighters is an “emerging research area that needs further development within Australia”, she and Ms Lambros acknowledge there is a large amount of support available to firefighters following the clearly stressful constraints of their positions.

“Volunteer firefighting brigades would typically have access to the same resources as career fire fighters,” Dr Skeffington said.

“This can include an Employee Assistance Program (EAP), chaplaincy, wellness officers, peer support services, Mental Health First Aid training and critical incident response in line with the policies of the organisation.”

“Victims of the bushfires should know that there is plenty of help available and they should not shy away from accessing the help that is available,” Ms Lambros said. 

“At all costs, they should be aware that putting a hand up and asking for help is not demonstrating weakness – people are here and willing to help.”