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Lessons learned from Ash Wednesday

Sunday, 16 February 2003

A University of Adelaide psychiatry professor who conducted the first studies into the traumatic effects of the Ash Wednesday bushfires 20 years ago has urged Australians to remember the major changes for good that came out of the disaster.

Professor Sandy McFarlane, now Head of the University's Department of Psychiatry at the Queen Elizabeth Hospital, is one of the world's foremost authorities on post-traumatic stress disorder. His studies into the impact of the Ash Wednesday bushfires are some of the most cited disaster studies in the world.

Professor McFarlane documented the bravery, losses and suffering that a number of people endured in the aftermath of the disaster.

The studies involved groups who had intense exposure and suffered losses, including the Country Fire Service fire fighters, 25% of whom believed they would die at some stage of the fires, and 800 primary school children affected by the fires' devastation in South Australia's southeast.

"Today we take for granted the fact that support and counselling services will be provided after tragedies such as the Bali bombing and the recent bushfires in Canberra," says Professor McFarlane.

"In 1983, considerable suspicion remained about the reality of the psychological damage that lurks in the aftermath of such events. Thanks to the many survivors of Ash Wednesday who contributed to our original studies, we have been able to make a real impact in the level of response and relief for other disaster victims right around the world.

"Ash Wednesday was an event that confronted our community with a sense of the fragility of our control over the natural world. When disaster strikes, its unimaginable nature means that even the best preparations are inadequate. Calamities like Ash Wednesday test society's capacity to act in a collective way to protect communities and to nurture those who are injured. They are events that challenge the limits of survival and remind us that we depend on each other for protection and help.

"Disasters remind us that healthy societies are built upon people who act collectively, rather than in self-interest. Volunteer organisations such as the CFS epitomise this spirit," he says.

"However, the challenge presented by a disaster is also about recovery. There is a tendency to think of bushfires in terms the enormity of the blaze, the struggle of containment, the number of properties burned, houses lost, and people killed and injured. People are less willing to speak personally of the grief and haunted memories that are often the most enduring legacies of the destruction and loss.

"The lessons learned from their suffering represent a building block in knowledge that creates a greater awareness of what to expect after these events and how to deal with it.

"It goes without saying that we would never wish such an event again. If it should occur, we should hope that we have learned to manage the containment of the disaster and the aftermath more effectively."

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