Monday, June 04, 2007

Canberra Firestorm Report

"Recovering from the 2003 Canberra Bushfire: a Work in Progress" report on research on the effectiveness of recovery services after the 2003 firestorm in Canberra. The work was funded by Emergency Management Australia, and carried out by the Australian Catholic University, the University of Canberra and the ACT Department of Health. The report is available from EMA, but as a difficult to download is a 109 page, 963 KB PDF document. I have extracted the summary and recommendations and appended them below.

Also the ACT Coroner delivered a two volume report entitled "The Canberra Firestorm". The Coroner's report is available as two large PDF files (Volume 1 2.4MB and Volume 2 15.4 MB) and as separate chapters.

On 18 January 2003, during the fires, I provided some photos of the firefighting operations. Later I prepared:
Also I supervised research by a student and provided some other disaster related materials at ANU:
Also of relevance is "In stressful times what can we as teachers do?", by
Dr John Worthington.

Recovering from the 2003 Canberra Bushfire: a Work in Progress

Executive summary


It is more than three and a half years since Canberra experienced the devastating 'firestorm' on January 18 2003 in which 4 people died, 3 people were treated for serious burns at the Royal North Shore Hospital, 49 people admitted to ACT hospitals and 440 people received outpatient care. 488 houses were destroyed in both urban and rural ACT. Nearly 160,000 hectares were burnt in the ACT including over 16,000 hectares of plantation forests and 31,000 hectares of rural leases. More than 5,000 people were evacuated to the emergency centres and many more went to family and friends for safety.

A State of Emergency existed from the onset of the firestorm on the 18th January until it was lifted on the 28th January 2003. Over 50,000 residents lost their utility services (electricity, gas and water) during the early post-fire stage. 1600 households registered with the ACT Bushfire Recovery Centre for assistance.

This report details a research project that looked at aspects of the recovery process following the January 2003 bushfire. The research was funded by Emergency Management Australia and undertaken by a multidisciplinary research team drawn from the Australian Catholic University, the University of Canberra and the ACT Government. Additional funding was provided by Mental Health ACT

Project overview

The literature on emergency management, community resilience and recovery is rapidly growing. However, as our review of the literature in the body of this report demonstrates, there are still considerable gaps in the literature concerning the nature of recovery, in particular the medium to long-term nature of recovery. Accordingly, the purpose of this research project has been to investigate the process of individual and community recovery from a natural disaster, looking particularly at the medium to long-term recovery process following the 2003 Canberra bushfire.

The project had four interlocking strands related to the medium and long-term impact of the bushfires, examining:

  • Individual and community recovery and resilience;
  • Government and community recovery programs;
  • Mental health outcomes for individuals; and
  • Communication and information provision.

The research, which was conducted between September 2005 and July 2006, focused on finding out what was most helpful to individual and communities on the path to recovery, including what actions, services, attitudes, behaviours, relationships, communication activities and other interventions helped people and what assisted longer term recovery. It also sought to identify factors that hindered recovery.

There were two main research strategies. The first was a questionnaire administered as a postal survey and distributed at the beginning of April 2006 (i.e. after the Canberra bushfire season) to approximately 1600 households registered with the ACT Bushfire Recovery Centre. The survey comprised 126 questions enabling respondents to provide quantitative and qualitative responses on a range of topics related to the impact of the bushfire. It included multi-item ratings and a number of open-ended questions designed to elicit brief personal narratives. Data sets were obtained for 500 respondents.

The second strand involved follow-up face-to-face interviews with forty individuals selected from among those survey respondents who returned a form indicating interest in being interviewed. Many more respondents were interested in being interviewed than project resources allowed, so we were able to select a sample of interviewees on the basis of obtaining equal numbers of males and females and a good representation of ages, households with and without children, and varying locations of current residence.

The interviews, conducted over a four-week period from mid-May to mid-June, 2006, were semi-structured and approximately one hour long and up to two hours where

necessary. Participation was completely voluntary and all interviewees provided written informed consent. Analysis of the data from interviews was undertaken by drawing from summary notes made by the researchers. In-depth analysis of the interview data was beyond the scope of this project. However, these individual accounts were used to add richness and detail and clarify issues identified from the survey responses; and provided valuable additional insight into the lives of those affected by the fires and ways to support people following future bushfires and other disasters.

Ethical considerations

The research was approved by the ACT Health and Community Human Research Ethics Committee, and the Australian Catholic University and University of Canberra Human Research Ethics Committees.

Given the possible adverse or unforeseen effects associated with research on survival of trauma, we were aware of our 'duty of care' to participants and identified strategies for dealing with any adverse consequences of participation. Specific risk management/ harm minimisation strategies were employed.

Profile of the research participants

The following key aspects of the demographic data for the 500 survey respondents represent a summary of a more detailed profile set out in Chapter 3 of this report.

  • Respondents to the survey were more likely to be women than men.
  • Most respondents (60%) were middle-aged, that is between their mid-40 and 60's.
  • The majority of respondents were highly educated: nearly half (46%) had completed a university degree and approximately one quarter (26%) had certificate level education.
  • 43% of the respondents reported that their home was destroyed in the fires. The total number of homes destroyed was 488 and 214 people whose homes were destroyed responded to the survey. This has important implications for the data as it indicates that those who experienced severe loss of property and many exposed to threat of life and injury wanted their 'voices' heard.
  • Just over half (52%) the respondents were in full-time work, approximately one-third (34%) were not in the labour force, and few (2%) were looking for work. The estimated annual family income was high (over $75,000) for about half (51%) the respondents; however, just over one quarter (28%) had estimated annual family income of up to $50,000.
  • The most common household size was two people.
  • Nearly one-fifth of respondents (23%) reported having one or more children aged 4 to 17 living with them in their household.

Recommendations for policy, planning and delivery of recovery services

The research team believes the study has demonstrated that individual and community recovery after the Canberra bushfire has been the combined result of the services and support provided through formal and informal services, government and non-government, and the actions that people took to help themselves and each other. Also it is clear that personal characteristics, qualities and circumstances impacted on how, and the extent to which, individuals were able to utilise the support that was available and to participate in community recovery activities.

Within this framework of factors that influenced recovery, we observed that there was no single and universally shared experience or factor that helped or hindered everybody. Responses about almost every aspect of recovery were marked by their diversity across the population that we surveyed and interviewed. This diversity has significant implications for recovery planning if we are to deliver services that respond to needs across the whole of the disaster-affected community.

The remainder of this section lists the major recommendations emerging from the research, grouped according to the four major areas of focus. These should be read in conjunction with Chapter 8 which discusses the implications and recommendations for policy, planning and delivery of recovery services and possible future research.

Whole of government, in partnership with community, approaches to recovery:

It is recommended that governments and communities managing community recovery after disaster:

  • Adopt a coordinated task force approach
  • Ensure that the Task Force includes community representation and is advised by a community reference group and service providers
  • Note that community recovery will take years and that services must be in place for extensive periods

It is recommended that recovery managers note the effectiveness of:

  • The one stop shop, recovery centre model in the provision of services to disaster-affected people
  • The effectiveness of recovery workers as the case managers in disaster recovery and their effectiveness in providing community support to emerging groups, streets neighbourhoods, and villages
  • The need to identify groups that may feel that they are not receiving services and put strategies in place to reach them

Communication and Media

Overall, information and communication provided by the ACT Government to assist in recovery was praised by respondents. In particular, the newsletter Community Update

was singled out by a large majority of respondents as meeting their needs. With very few exceptions, the mass media served the affected community very well. Recommendations emerging from the research include:

  • Timeliness and consistency of information provision should be improved
  • New ways of telling people where to get information and resources should be explored
  • Newsletters designed for the affected community should avoid 'over-cheeriness'; reflect people's actual experiences across a range of good and bad, and address all affected stakeholder groups; community input should be strongly encouraged
  • Overtly political presence and content in newsletters should be minimised
  • Ensure that media briefings and releases involve all media available to the post-disaster community (including internet and community media) and cover all recovery-related issues as soon as they emerge.

Long term mental health outcomes

While many people did not experience lasting negative psychological outcomes following the 2003 Canberra bushfire, a considerable number of individuals continue to encounter ongoing mental health and psychosocial problems. However, this scenario is to be expected given the presence of risk factors (such as a high degree of exposure and losses and related ongoing stressors) and has been reported in the context of other Australian natural disasters including bushfires.

Recommendations emerging from the research include:

  • That service providers assist individuals who require support for a range of ongoing disaster-related mental health and psychosocial problems.
  • That service providers investigate and implement effective strategies to optimize outcome in terms of mental health and psychosocial problems in the medium- and long-term post-disaster.
  • That service providers investigate ways to assist individuals at various life stages to minimise a range of disaster-related mental health and psychosocial problems that may occur in the years post-disaster.
  • That funding bodies support comprehensive analysis of data provided by disaster-affected individuals in order to strengthen and clarify the existing understanding of mental health in the context of medium- to long-term recovery processes.
  • That funding bodies support development of pre-prepared research methodologies that are ready to adapt and use at the time of disasters.
  • That funding bodies support Australian-based longitudinal follow-up and outcome studies to evaluate interventions, and research that focuses on children/young people and their parents together within the same studies.

Individual and community resilience

In order to support individual and community resilience, it is recommended:

  • That information about how recovery, including medium and long term recovery, takes place be made available to individuals and families to help them understand their own responses and/or those of others in the family.
  • That the community generally be provided with information about the nature of recovery to facilitate greater understanding and tolerance of the feelings and experiences of disaster victims, in particular that individuals experience recovery at their own pace and in their own way.
From: "Recovering from the 2003 Canberra Bushfire: a Work in Progress", Peter Camilleri, Chris Healy, Elspeth Macdonald, Susan Nicholls, Jolyon Sykes, Gail Winkworth, Merrilyn Woodward, Australian Catholic University, the University of Canberra and the ACT Department of Health, EMA, 2007

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