The health effects of returning to an area affected by bushfires

After the firestorm has passed, the risks to health remain. These include physical and chemical hazards associated with damaged structures, contaminated air, food and water, and the well-documented risks to mental health and well-being.

Prepare to return

Burnt property can pose many hazards. It is important to be prepared and cautious when returning.

Check if emergency services have declared a region safe for residents to return to and seek advice. Most jurisdictions have resources that are relevant to their region. The Western Australian Department of Fires and Emergency Services offers extensive information.

Wear a disposable face mask when entering a property that has been affected by fire for the first. Also, wear heavy duty gloves and overalls with long sleeves. Face masks “P2”, available at hardware stores, are the best to use. Paper dust masks and handkerchiefs are not effective in filtering out very fine dust particles, asbestos fibres or other hazards. Bring enough plastic bags to hold dirty clothes, which you should remove before entering the vehicle.

Gas cylinders and garden chemicals can also be hazardous, as well as cleaning products, gas cylinders and other burned residues.

Air quality

Smoke may be present from recent fires, or smouldering local debris. Smoke can be toxic and worsen lung and heart problems in some people. Children, unborn babies, smokers, and those with lung and heart diseases, including asthma, are at the greatest risk.

Portable generators can also cause air pollution. They should only be used in areas that are well ventilated to prevent carbon monoxide poisoning.

It is likely that houses, whether or not they have been damaged by fire, will have experienced a period of time without power. Dean Lewins

Food and Water Safety

It is likely that houses, whether or not they have been damaged by fire, will have experienced a period of time without electricity. Food that has been thawed or warmed up should be thrown away. Food, drinks, or medicines that are damaged by heat, smoke, and water should also be thrown out.

It is safe to use rainwater if the tanks are intact, and there are no unusual smells, tastes or looks. However, it is wise to boil the untreated water. If firefighting foams, animal carcasses or other contaminants have contaminated the water in a rainwater tank, it should be drained out and replaced with fresh water. Also, it’s important to clean the roof of any carcasses or other contaminants which could end up in the rainwater tank.

Personal Impacts

Children and adults can both be affected by the psychological trauma caused by a fire. They may be grieving for many different losses. This could include friends, neighbors, animals, and livestock who have died or been injured in the fire. It’s also possible that they are grieving over the loss of personal items and treasured possessions.

Although most people recover from a traumatic event, some may experience long-lasting emotional effects, including depression, anxiety and anger. Other symptoms include fatigue, nightmares, and difficulty concentrating. Some people may find that they are no longer able to live in the surroundings they once loved and have to move away.

Read more: The age of solastalgia

The onset of mental health issues can sometimes be delayed months and even years after the event. Help from a counselor or family doctor can manage and reduce these impacts. Involvement in community activities and social connections can help promote resilience and be protective.

After a bushfire, it’s important to remember that post-traumatic anxiety has a positive counterpart called post-traumatic growth. This can help individuals and communities become more resilient and stronger.

Rebuilding community centres and restoring community services and activities as quickly as possible is key to helping individuals and community recover. Firefighters will, therefore, prioritise the protection of assets in communities.

Support from the community is vital

It can be dangerous and traumatizing to return to areas affected by fire. Residents should prepare and equip themselves for potential hazards and seek the advice of appropriate authorities, such as local councils, emergency services and public health agencies.

For a person to feel less affected by the psychological and personal effects, it is important to maintain social relationships and receive community support. The support must continue even after the media has forgotten about the tragedy.

This work has already started in the affected communities of NSW and Victoria. Meetings are being held to begin the process of rebuilding communities and lives.

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