Survey reveals mental health impact of Black Summer fires on emergency workers

07/10/2021 | 5 mins

A new survey, by the Graduate School of Education at The University of Western Australia, highlights the impacts of the 2019-20 Black Summer fires on the wellbeing of emergency services workers with many responders reporting a high need for mental health support.

After the Fires study was led by UWA in partnership with Flinders University, Military and Emergency Services Health Australia (MESHA, part of The Hospital Research Foundation Group), Roy Morgan Research and the Bushfire and Natural Hazards Cooperative Research Centre. 

The Black Summer fire season saw widespread destruction of unprecedented magnitude, duration and intensity. In total, 33 lives were lost, more than 3,000 homes were destroyed, wildlife was decimated, and more than 20 million hectares of community and farming land and national parks were burnt.

It is estimated that 82,500 emergency workers including volunteers and employees were involved in responding to the natural disaster and 4,000 of those participated in the survey, which was funded by the Federal Government’s Medical Research Future Fund.

UWA co-lead researcher Associate Professor David Lawrence said the report underlined the need for governments and communities to consider how they would respond to increasingly frequent and severe events such as the Black Summer fires. 

"While all emergency services agencies have policies and procedures in place to support their employees’ wellbeing and provide support to those with mental health issues, an important issue to consider is how to scale up the level of support available following major disasters. In many areas mental health support services are at or above capacity in ordinary times and have limited or no capacity to provide additional support when needed following major disasters."

Associate Professor David Lawrence

The survey identified a third of volunteers and a quarter of employees had felt there was a time when their life was threatened when responding to the 2019-20 bushfires.

“We found that 4.6 per cent of volunteers and 5.5 per cent of employees had very high psychological distress indicative of serious mental illness, which equates to around 3,000 volunteers and 1,000 employees, compared to 4 per cent of the overall Australian population,” Associate Professor Lawrence said.

“The survey also revealed that rates of suicide ideation and suicide plans were about twice as high as in the general population, with 4.6 per cent of volunteers and 4.9 per cent of employees seriously considering ending their life in the year following the fires.”

Professor Sharon Lawn, from the College of Medicine and Public Health at Flinders University, conducted the qualitative interviews with volunteer firefighters which complemented the survey. 

“The cumulative psychological impacts for our fellow members of the community who undertake this important role of fighting bushfires cannot be overstated,” Professor Lawn said.

“One volunteer in his 70s who had been a firefighter volunteer for more than 50 years captured this when he said: ‘And I can’t – I can’t go to a fire now … I’ve lost too many houses; I’ve seen too many people lose everything - I can’t do it anymore.’ Though traumatised by his many experiences, he was determined to continue contributing to training and support of his peer.”

Wooroloo fires. Credit: DFES Incident Photographer Evan Collis

Image: Wooroloo fires. Credit: DFES Incident Photographer Evan Collis.

Of those who responded to the 2019-20 bushfires study, 4.5 per cent of volunteers and 5.1 per cent of employees had probable PTSD at the time of the survey, representing an estimated 2,900 volunteers and 920 employees.

“This survey is an important first step to understanding the short-term impacts of the 2019-20 bushfires and other adverse life experiences on the mental health and well-being of Australia’s first responders,” said Associate Professor Miranda Van Hooff, co-researcher and executive director MESHA. 

“What is most important now is to continue to monitor this population over time so that we can learn more about the factors that promote and protect their health and wellbeing into the future”. 

After the Fires aims to address key gaps in knowledge about how to foster resilience and coping, and investigate how to deliver effective support for mental health and wellbeing to Australian bushfire first responders. 

As mental health concerns can emerge two years or more after the initial traumatic fire events, After the Fires research will continue over 2021-22 with a second wave of the survey and additional focus groups and interviews.

Media references

David Lawrence (UWA Graduate School of Education) 08 6488 3017

Annelies Gartner (UWA media advisor) 08 6488 6876

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