After a bushfire, the impact on communities’ mental health can last for years, as Yarloop knows too well

13 January 2020

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AUSTRALIA – It has been four years since a bushfire all but destroyed the small town of Yarloop in WA’s South West, yet for those who lived through it, the psychological trauma remains long after the physical scars faded from the land.

Tracy Osborn is a volunteer firefighter who returned from battling a fire front on that fateful day to find her home destroyed and her town ablaze.

“I don’t have any nightmares or visions in my head that keep me awake at night like a lot of the other volunteers I know do,” she said.

“But I’m finding now, particularly in the last year, it’s just sort of hitting home to me, the enormity of it.

“I’m just starting to realise my neighbour is never coming home.

“I’m going to get new neighbours one day, and that’s great, but they’re not my old neighbour, I miss him terribly.

“Just so much has changed.”

Clinical psychologist Elizabeth Newnham specialises in disaster-related trauma and said what Ms Osborn was dealing with was not uncommon.

“The experience is different for everyone and the timeline is different for everyone,” Dr Newnham said.

“So while we know that mental health difficulties emerge months or years after the initial disaster, some people may struggle in the very early stages and find things get easier as the community rebuilds.

“And some may find that they’re busy in the early stages and can cope very well with the initial part, but that those ongoing hardships create difficulty for mental health in the long-term.”

Stay and rebuild or move on?

As bushfires have raged across the east coast of Australia, former and current residents of Yarloop have watched on with feelings of both immense sympathy and understanding.

On January 7, 2016, it took just seven minutes for fire to ravage their town, leaving it unrecognisable.

Two people were killed and about 100 homes and other significant buildings were destroyed.

Some, like Ms Osborn who moved to Yarloop 18 years ago, decided to stay and rebuild.

While it took 12 months before her property was asbestos free — and another year or so before she had a home — the 51-year-old said it felt like the right decision for her at the time.

Many, however, decided to move on.

Dr Newnham said that type of decision was completely down to the individual.

“Some people want to stay in the community and rebuild there,” she said.

“Some people will cope well with a move away from the community and fewer reminders of the event.

“What is important is that people take into account what is going to work for them — there is no right or wrong answer.”

A chance to start again

Vida Hill had lived in Yarloop for 14 years when the blaze ripped through the town, her memory today as clear as the day it happened.

“It’s not something that goes away, you know, the feeling of sitting in your car … it almost felt like you were cooking and you couldn’t breathe,” she recounted with vivid detail.

Ms Hill had been among more than 50 local residents who gathered in their cars at the oval having got caught out when a late afternoon wind change placed Yarloop directly in the fire’s path.

All that remained to help protect them was one small fire truck and two members of the local volunteer brigade, the rest out battling the fire that had started in nearby Waroona three days before.

“By the time we got down to the oval our street was actually burning,” she said.

“The whole thing came through like an explosion, that’s the only way I can describe it, like a huge tornado.

“The air was just full of greasy, black smoke and embers, the wind was howling … houses were just going up in flames.”

Ms Hill said while initially she had planned to rebuild in Yarloop, she quickly lost the energy for it and instead saw it as a chance to start again.

Once her insurance came through, she bought a home in Falcon, a suburb in the coastal city of Mandurah.

“For me, my life has always been chapters like in a book, so this one was a new chapter,” she said.

“But you can’t get over something like that and some people feel it more than others … some people I know went through terrible trauma after it.”

Everyday tasks become hardships in bushfire aftermath

Ms Hill said the work of charities and volunteers in the days, weeks and even months following the fire had been invaluable, yet all of that support did not stop her becoming overwhelmed with certain tasks following the blaze.

Dr Newnham said daily tasks could quickly become hardships in both the immediate and long-term rebuilding phase.

“Whether that be dealing with bills, dealing with insurance companies or economic insecurity like under-employment or unemployment,” she said.

”It can be shortages in housing or temporary housing, or shortages in food and water, it can be social isolation as the community moves away or returns, or a sense of uncertainty that really play a big role in long-term mental health.

“So addressing those — and supporting communities to address those — very quickly and clearly and easily will make a big difference to long-term resilience of a group.”

‘Believe in the future’

Linda Holbrey remained in Yarloop after the fire but had both her son and her best friend leave the town following the blaze.

She said while at first she felt like a victim, she soon decided to become a survivor and wanted to share a message of hope for those dealing with the fires over east.

“If it’s just happened you’re in shock, then fear and then anger sets in,” she said.

“But the bottom line is to believe in the future, to know that it’s going to be there.”

She said often the best support was to know there were people willing to listen.

“Surround yourself with people who you love, talk to people if and when you need, they might not be able to fix your problems, but they can listen to you,” she said.

“Often that’s what you need — a pair of ears that’s willing to listen to you, to listen to your heartache and to your mental state … it is your mental and emotional state that takes a long time.”

Mental health impacts long-lasting and varied

Dr Newnham said the many varied experiences shared by those from the Yarloop bushfire reflected the range of ways people managed in the aftermath of a disaster.

“Some people experience great strength or sometimes even post-traumatic growth after a bushfire,” she said.

“In disaster-affected communities there’s incredible resilience, people come together really well, they cope together well.”

But she said the long-term mental health impacts should not be ignored — and hoped governments had begun appropriate planning to deal with them.

“We know that as our climate changes and we’re seeing a greater intensity and frequency of weather-related disasters, we really a need sustainable, long-term mental health system to support people in that long rebuilding phase,” Dr Newnham said.

“It’s often not often talked about in disaster management but it is something of great severity that needs to be addressed in the years following and that will take really careful planning, preparedness and advocacy to prepare for the mental health scale and need.”

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