Being psychologically prepared for bushfire a vital part of survival

Being psychologically prepared for bushfire a vital part of survival
12 October 2017

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AUSTRALIA: Diana Kuchinke remembers exactly where she was standing in January 2006 when she realised her 16-hectare property in the Brisbane Ranges, north of Geelong, was in the path of an out-of-control bushfire.

Despite having a bushfire plan, Ms Kuchinke said nothing could have prepared her for the emotional stress presented by the looming threat.

“Inherent in the fact that you have fire, you have fire weather,” she said.

“The whole area was full of smoke, windy, and it was stinking hot.”

The fire burned more than 6,000ha, destroying three houses, 32 other buildings, and killing 888 stock.

An ’emotional smack in the head’

Ms Kuchinke said the hot and windy weather conditions had added a level of stress to her preparations, causing an unforeseen impact on her decision making.

“People get very emotional with the thought of losing their home, especially if they have lots of animals,” she said.

“Mentally you have to feel in control and … when you know that this is now actually happening, that it’s not a plan anymore, it’s coming your way, everybody is going to be different.

“For me it was very much an emotional smack in the head. It’s like this is actually happening.

“No matter how much I prepared myself, I hadn’t realised [the] impact.”

Ms Kuchinke said she switched into “automatic mode” once her family decided to leave, referring to a bushfire plan she had written on the wall.

“If I hadn’t had that list on the wall, I may not have achieved anything,” she said.

“There’s always that bunch of people that say ‘I’m not staying, I’m going to leave’. My answer to them is ‘What if you can’t leave?'”

Bushfires change how people think and function

Clinical psychologist David Younger said on top of being physically and materially prepared, people needed to become psychologically prepared for bushfires.

“[People] will go into quite a different state of functioning or quite a different state of operating when they’re presented with the threat of a bushfire,” Mr Younger said.

“A whole series of changes take place in the body, such as increased heart rate, adrenaline being released into the bloodstream, which gives us access to energy we wouldn’t otherwise get access to.

“Although this alarm system allows us to adapt to an emerging threat … there are many other important functions that we actually, as people, lose the ability to use, or they at least become reduced.”

Mr Younger said one example was the ability to solve problems in the moment.

“Our brains become locked on to a threat and we are really only able to do the things that we’ve put into our long term memory or possibly rehearsed before,” he said.

“If you were facing a bushfire … and then your pump all of a sudden broke down and you didn’t have any water, if you hadn’t anticipated that, you might not actually know how to solve that problem.”

Mr Younger said with bushfire seasons increasing in length and severity, more people need to be psychologically prepared for the heat, sight, smell and sound of a bushfire.

“I think this is where there is a bit of a gap … there’s a pretty distinct difference between those people who have had a bushfire experience before and those who haven’t.

“They have an awareness now about what it’s like being in bushfire, what it is like to be facing a really significant threat like that, and how they actually functioned quite differently.”

Risk of growing complacency since Black Saturday

Brett Boatman is an operations manager for the Country Fire Authority and is based in Ballarat, west of Melbourne.

He said while awareness around fire safety had improved since the Black Saturday bushfires in Victoria in 2009, which killed 173 people and destroyed more than 2,100 homes, the risk of complacency was ever-present.

“The data we’re getting states that there’s been a bit of a taper away since Black Saturday about how the community is digesting the information,” he said.

“[As] the disaster gets further away from where we are now, people may be becoming a little bit more complacent.”

Mr Boatman said community expectations of the resources available to emergency services were unrealistic.

“We’ve done some survey work over the winter months which suggests that up to 87 per cent of people think they’ll get assistance from a fire truck on a bushfire day, and that’s an assurance we can’t make,” he said.

Community urged to embrace its responsibilities

In a three-year doctoral study of the Black Saturday bushfires, University of Melbourne researcher Graham Dwyer interviewed 63 Victorian emergency services workers.

One of the key findings of Mr Dwyer’s study is the need to move from the expectation that emergency services are completely responsible for preparing for fires.

“Each fire is unique, and we run the risk of becoming complacent if we think previous public inquiries have delivered us to a position of safety,” he said.

“Worryingly, people are choosing to take a wait and see approach to what happens on high fire danger days.”

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