News / Canada

Life after fire an emotional roller-coaster for months, years to come: expert

University of Lethbridge professor Judith Kulig says those affected by a devastating wildfire in Fort McMurray, Alta., will likely experience a gamut of emotions.

Evacuees camp by a lake as smoke fills the sky near Fort McMurray, Alta., on Wednesday May 4, 2016.

Jason Franson

Evacuees camp by a lake as smoke fills the sky near Fort McMurray, Alta., on Wednesday May 4, 2016.

People who lose everything in a wildfire experience an emotional roller-coaster that in some cases lasts for months and even years, says a social scientist who has studied the aftermath of four major fires in Western Canada.

University of Lethbridge professor Judith Kulig says those affected by a devastating wildfire in Fort McMurray, Alta., will likely experience a gamut of emotions.

"What we find is that right after the fire there is that shock, disbelief and then a denial to what is happening," Kulig said.

"Then people do tend to create a sense of cohesiveness and feel closer together because of what they've gone through."

About 1,600 homes and other buildings have been burned to the ground in Fort McMurray, forcing tens of thousands to flee to nearby communities in what officials have called the biggest fire evacuation in the province's history.

Right now, Kulig said, residents remain in the shock and denial phase, which will slowly give way to elation that stems from survival and from the acts of kindness from strangers.

Then, after residents return to the community, she said, the difficulty begins. 

During her research of the wildfire that ripped through Slave Lake, Alta., in 2011 — which included interviews with residents, firefighters, community officials and teachers — Kulig learned that children struggled in the classroom because of anxiety that went unnoticed at home.

"It's interesting with children because children really want to protect their parents, particularly with parents that have lost homes and lost things," she said. "So they don't articulate how anxious they are or how upset they are." 

The problem in Slave Lake, she said, was further compounded by the loss of activities — the local community centre was destroyed in the fire — especially for children. 

There was little fun to be had for months, Kulig said.

But Slave Lake, she said, had strong multi-ministerial organizations that were able to harness the inflow of government money to help the children.

"They created this free evening at the pool so kids and families could get together there and they had pizza and swimming and that was a nice activity for people to get away and forget about what was going on," Kulig said.

Another smart decision, she said, was to provide counselling by calling it something else. Social workers invited community members "to drop in, have a coffee and talk about issues" that she said had a positive impact on the community's mental health.

Yet there will likely be problems in Fort McMurray, said Kulig.

Studies of the aftermath of fires in Australia show the traumatic events will exacerbate pre-existing problems such as substance abuse and domestic violence, she said.

"Those studies have also suggested that adults can be diagnosed with PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder) up to three years after a wildfire," she said.

"It's really important that counselling be provided to all age groups and to a variety of people within the community and don't assume that because people say they're doing well that they are."

If her research holds true, around this time next year, residents of Fort McMurray will go through a very difficult time.

"They remember things and feel things and replay things in their mind around the first anniversary and that will be the first time many will have to confront their emotions," she said.

However, Kulig said, her research shows the human spirit is resilient.

"They really do pull up their socks and keep going forward," she said.

More on Metronews.ca