On this day: Ash Wednesday bushfires

By Mischa Vickas 7 November 2013
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It’s the anniversary of the huge 1983 Victorian bushfires, and the psychological impact is still being felt.

ON WEDNESDAY 16 FEBUARY1983, high temperatures and strong winds, following 10 months of severe drought, sparked bushfires that claimed 75 lives and razed an area twice the size of metropolitan Melbourne.

These remained the worst bushfires in terms of fatalities for more than a quarter of a century, until Victoria’s Black Saturday bushfires in 2009 took 173 lives.

Fortunately, moves to prevent long-term trauma after big bushfires have improved since the 1980s, says Professor Sandy McFarlane, at the University of Adelaide’s Centre for Traumatic Stress. The Country Fire Authority (CFA) now offers firefighter peer-support sessions and ‘hot debriefs’, which involve talking about the event immediately after coming off a firefighting front-line. Nonetheless, Sandy emphasises that there’s no great differences between a warzone and a bushfire setting.

The psychological impact of bushfires

As a young psychiatrist, Sandy worked with communities impacted by the Ash Wednesday bushfires after they swept through southern Victoria and south-east South Australia.

Over 16,000 firefighters, including park and forest fire-fighters and CFA volunteers, 1000 police, 500 defence force personnel and many local residents were involved in the ’83 fires.

Sandy recalls working with a former airman who had been through both the ’83 fires and wartime. “He just was persecuted by his memories of having to deal with flight crew who had been burned when shells had gone into the planes.” Over the three decades since the fires, Sandy has been trying to gauge the level of long-term psychological impact in communities affected, looking closely at the condition known as Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD).

The notion of PTSD was first introduced to psychological practice following the Vietnam War. The disorder is characterised by a high level of fear and distress after a traumatic event, such as combat, or in this case, bushfire

Preparing for future fires

On Ash Wednesday, Peter Schmidt was a volunteer fire fighter in Upper Beaconsfield, 45km south-east of Melbourne, where 21 people died, including 12 fellow volunteers. “We actually heard their mayday call. They were only 400m from us.”

Peter, now a Regional Director for the CFA, says support for people affected by bushfires has come a long way, since 1983 when limited counselling services were available.

However, the impact of bushfires can be affected by a number of factors, and some of this happens before and after an event. Although for many Ash Wednesday is still “a ghost that was haunting them,” Sandy and his colleagues have found that it is difficult to say whether the fires are directly to blame for cases of PTSD in affected communities given the number of other traumatic events, such as car accidents, that most people go through at some time as a part of life.

“If you look behind the people who do struggle it’s often because of this multiplicity of previous adversity that they have suffered,” says Sandy.

By providing support services for all sorts of traumatic events, says Peter, people will be better prepared for fires in the future.

“The more they’re supported, the better their resilience,” he says.