Children’s bushfire fears triggered by fog, clouds, more than six months on from Canberra’s horror summer

24 August 2020

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AUSTRALIA – Jeremy, 5, and Charlotte, 4, were evacuated from their south Canberra home in January as the Orroral Valley bushfire burned out of control in nearby Namadgi National Park.

At first, the siblings were “excited” to see fire trucks outside their house when the fire sparked in late January 2020.

But it went on to burn for weeks, and eventually destroyed homes over the border in New South Wales.

The children’s mother, Emily McPherson, said emergency vehicles were parked out the front of their Gordon home constantly.

“We were on alert the whole time — it spread very fast with the wind blowing our direction,” she said, explaining her bushfire survival plan was to evacuate when the situation escalated.

Fog, low-lying clouds still causing fear

More than six months on from the event, the children fear a fire is nearby when low-lying clouds or fog descend upon the valley in which the city rests.

Being winter, it is a regular occurrence — the children remember the bushfire smoke that choked the city and made Canberra’s air quality the worst in the world.

“They often bring up the fire — it was a huge time in their life, obviously they have never experienced anything similar,” Ms McPherson said.

“I explain to them that it is just fog or a cloud and we are completely safe.”

The bushfire was particularly traumatic for the family as Jeremy has autism and Charlotte suffers from severe asthma.

They evacuated when ash began falling on the house.

“It was very difficult for them as they didn’t understand,” Ms McPherson recalled.

“The waterbombing helicopters flew directly over our house and quite low, shaking the house and very loud.

“The noise from the trucks, the sirens and the helicopters was way too much for them to cope with, which also helped my decision to leave.”

Jeremy and Charlotte are just two of many children who were impacted by Australia’s bushfire season, and who continue to experience the psychological effects of the disaster.

Headspace have just revealed that their calls for help more than tripled in the past quarter, and they held 1,000 sessions with clients between April and June as coronavirus took over.

And experts say that the full impact of the trauma from the bushfires may only be starting to appear now, as the initial effects of the experience begin to wear off.

Involve children in the conversation, experts say

Australian Child and Adolescent Trauma, Loss and Grief Network director, Nicola Palfrey, explained that adrenaline from an experience like the bushfires can last for a few weeks or even months — but eventually, other emotions creep in, including anger or sadness.

“It kind of hits us when we’ve actually had time to catch our breath,” she said.

“Unfortunately, the next surge is about that [experience], and there’s a lot of grief and loss.”

In addition to the loss of family, friends or property, for children that could also mean the loss of a sense of safety.

“It kind of becomes clear that mum and dad are fallible.”

Dr Palfrey said she was not at all surprised by the McPherson children’s reactions.

“I certainly know some families I’ve contacted here have had some children feeling distressed about the fog, and thinking it’s smoke,” she said.

Dr Palfrey runs the trauma network out of the Australian National University, and she said huge numbers of people had been accessing the Emerging Minds Community Trauma Toolkit she created more than a year ago.

The toolkit is a guide for parents of children going through traumatic or worrying events, but even she could not have predicted how much of a demand there would be.

“Unfortunately, the toolkit’s been used a lot — we’ve been working a lot with communities who were impacted by the fires,” Dr Palfrey said.

“What you’re seeing in communities is … kind of ‘cascading disasters’.

“[But] if we give them good, quality information, they can feel reassured.”

What else can adults do for the children around them?

Dr Palfrey said one of the best things an adult could do was talk to children about their fears and help them navigate those emotions.

Without the same information adults have, children often react differently — sometimes with mood swings or tantrums — instead of expressing their fears.

“One of the things that we encourage people to do is to check in with their kids and see how they’re travelling,” Dr Palfrey said.

Dr Palfrey said that reassurance extended to involving children in preparations ahead of the next fire season, so that they could be confident a plan was in place.

“Kids will pick up on some things, but we don’t necessarily reassure them about what is being done,” she said.

Dr Palfrey also said kids and adults alike could take encouragement from seeing so many people rallying to support one another, both during the fires and since then.

“Seeing people coming together or people realising what skills they do have, or families or communities coming together … sometimes there’s strength that comes out of a

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