Australian schoolchildren struggle with wildfire ordeal

Australian schoolchildren struggle with wildfire ordeal

05 March 2009

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Australia — “That’s where my daddy got burned,” says five-year-old Tom, his finger resting on the face of a firefighter he drew with his classmates.

The Australian child’s picture shows a Country Fire Authority (CFA) volunteer with a distinctive mark on his cheek wearing orange overalls as he is surrounded by flames and billowing smoke.

It is one of about a dozen images created by the 46 children at Dixons Creek Primary School, about 60 kilometres (37 miles) northwest of Melbourne, to thank firefighters for their efforts during Australia’s worst wildfire disaster.

The messages the toddlers have penned to accompany the images are no less confronting, including: “Dear CFA, I hope you don’t die in the fires, you saved as much lives as you can, from Jonah, Indika and Chris.”

School principal Sharon Walker said helping children overcome the trauma of the wildfires that claimed at least 210 lives last month was the most difficult challenge she had faced in more than 30 years as a teacher.

Walker’s pupils come from some of the townships hit hardest by the fires, meaning she and her staff have become de facto counselors, not just for students but also for parents.

Most of the children experienced raging fires bearing down on their homes, with four losing their houses and one girl hunkering down in a shelter from flames that her mother later admitted she did not expect to survive.

Walker said the thank-you pictures for the CFA gave children a positive outlet to express their emotions after disaster, showing that people were trying to help save them from the firestorms and they were not alone.

Close to tears, she recounted a message left by one little girl whose home was destroyed.

“It’s heart-wrenching, (the girl) said ‘I know you tried’,” Walker said. “I read that and thought ‘you poor little soul’. But for her to say that shows she feels supported.”

Mental health specialist at the University of Western Sydney Beverley Raphael said all disaster survivors had to deal with shock, disbelief and grief, but the wildfires had presented a special set of circumstances.

“Bushfires bring devastation on a grand scale — loss of life, loss of homes, loss of personal possessions and loss of whole communities, all the things that are most meaningful in people’s lives,” she said.

Walker said children were particularly impressionable and dealing with the vivid experiences in which some of them almost died had to be handled carefully to avoid “re-traumatizing” them.

“We’ve got to try to understand what’s going on in that child’s mind and be sensitive to it,” she said, adding that counselors were regularly working with the children.

Some of her young charges had been withdrawn, “clingy” towards their parents and lacking concentration since the fires, she said, with one example of bullying, previously unheard of at the small school.

“The child who pushed the other one was horrified by his behavior and just didn’t understand why he’d done it,” she said.

Walker said the students responded to honest but sensitive treatment of their ordeal.

She has gently prodded parents into frankly telling children about the reality of the situation, such as saying pets killed in the fires are dead, rather than they have become lost and may return some day.

However, she said it was difficult because some parents were so traumatized by events that they were shielding themselves, as much as their children, from the reality of what had happened.

“I’m OK, but mum’s not,” one child whose beloved dogs died in the fires told Walker.

“Kids can pick dishonesty, they’re not silly, even the five-year-olds,” she said.

“You’ve got to appear resilient and you’re bouncing back and you’re coping,” the principal said.

“If not it’s far, far worse for the kids because that’s how they think you cope with disaster — you fall in a heap.

“Because of that, we got the counselors in very early for the parents.”

Staff at the school are also on the lookout for long-term impacts from the disaster.

“These kids will have to be watched for a long time,” she said. “It’s an ongoing issue. Who knows what will happen when they hit puberty.”

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