Firefighters Face Mental Health Threats As Bushfires Worsen

Bushfire seasons are beginning earlier and lasting longer – and that’s taking a toll on firefighters’ health.

By Graham Dwyer, Swinburne University

MELBOURNE, April 25 – Bushfires are getting more frequent and more intense — and it’s exposing firefighters to increasing health risks.

From prolonged drought to extended heatwaves, extreme dry and storm force winds, climate change is worsening the effects of bushfires.

As a result, firefighters now face a higher likelihood of being injured (or worse still, death) from tree strikes, smoke inhalation, heat-related illness, burns, burnovers, flame, entrapment, chainsaw mishaps, road and aviation accidents, engines fumes, and exposure to harmful fire-retardant chemicals.

There are also psychological dangers associated with these worsening bushfires, and they carry their own mental loads.

Despite their best efforts to prepare for bushfires, firefighters are all too aware that climate change will continue to spark multiple firestorms spontaneously on days of high fire danger, which are difficult to predict and track.

This all means damages and losses cannot be prevented within communities. Recently, we have even seen firestorms become a rolling conflagration with damages we couldn’t prepare for.

Often, communities see firefighters and fire authorities as responsible for protecting their safety. Such has been the scale of fires in recent times that firefighters have found themselves in life-threatening circumstances on the fireground before then being called before quasi-judicial inquiries where they have often been blamed and vilified for the damages and losses suffered by the community.

Many firefighters — both voluntary and career — live and work in the communities they seek to protect. Invariably, they and their families suffer the anger of the community when bushfires have resulted in damages and losses, even when they themselves have been impacted by the fires.

Firefighters also know they run the risk of losing their homes, or loved ones, while deployed to fires which have lasted for weeks.

The effects of this work means many firefighters suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) coupled with a sense of disconnection and isolation — both during their time off, and when they return from working with close colleagues over the course of a campaign fire.

We often forget that firefighters are human and will struggle to return to home life after being away.

Some are contract or seasonal firefighters and must find employment to avoid economic hardship, while volunteers may have seen their career or business suffer while away fighting fires.

When fire seasons are quieter the same firefighters will usually be called to support responses to hazards (while still being required to fulfill regular duties which are also demanding and dangerous) which means less time to recover through debriefing and less opportunity to seek peer support.

Bushfires are no longer considered a regional or rural phenomenon. Climate change means firefighters are being called to peri-urban and residential bush/scrubland areas to fight fires.

In an era of climate change, the creation of new suburbs in these areas means homes come under direct and ember attack from bushfires. While developing communities closer to bush, park, and scrublands does not trigger bushfires, it does put more people in harm’s way, creating occupational stresses for firefighters.

Climate change also means that firefighters have less time between fire events to perform burn offs to reduce fuel loads.

Now, with a political and social expectation that planned burning will reduce the severity of bushfires, firefighters are coming under extraordinary pressure to burn as often as possible.

Again, climate change means that fuel loads are often tinder dry and conditions can change quickly meaning a burn-off can turn into a fullscale bushfire. 

Bushfires (forest fire, grassfire) are a global phenomenon which means firefighters are spending more time supporting each other across borders as they collectively seek to respond to megafires.

There are important pathways to helping protect the health and wellbeing of firefighters.

Government and emergency management agencies can bring the risks of living with bushfire to the attention of the broader community. They could highlight how the public can take responsibility for their safety in an era where climate-driven bushfires are stretching the resilience of firefighters more than ever.

The message needs to be clear: that community safety is everyone’s responsibility, not just firefighters’.

This can be achieved by working directly with community organisations to understand their requirements, so when they are affected by bushfires they are as prepared as they can be.

Households can prepare by having bushfire plans ready, and being clear on whether they will leave early before they are in harm’s way or stay and defend their home.

Firefighters remain highly motivated to meet the challenges of climate change. But they need the support of everyone — government, the community and their own agency — so they cope while continuing to do all they can to plan for and respond to the bushfires of the future.

Graham Dwyer is the author of Making Sense of Natural Disasters.

Article courtesy of 360info.  

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