Rebuilding lives: Psychological trauma and growth in the aftermath of a catastrophic Australian bushfire

Lynne McCormack, Tamra Sillick

Research output: A Conference proceeding or a Chapter in BookChapterpeer-review

1 Citation (Scopus)


Catastrophic natural disasters such as a ‘blow-up’ bushfire have the capacity to overwhelm authorities, ambush escape routes for humans and animals trying to flee, and destroy communities in minutes. They are increasing in frequency as the global temperature continues to rise. Despite the physical and material risks, such terrorising events are psychologically confronting and can leave individuals with traumatic distress, even psychopathology. However, little research explores the subjective interpretation of those who have been impacted physically, psychologically and financially by a catastrophic bushfire. The ‘lived’ experience of six participants was explored and analysed using Interpretative Phenomenological Analysis. Four themes emerged: surviving the terror; on patrol and guilty; no longer me/no longer us; and personal renaissance; which capture the participants’ ongoing trajectory of survival, selfinterrogation, and a search for meaning and reconnection with loved ones and community. However, in the immediate period post-fire, career goals, child/parent relations, intimate relationship, and sense of community belonging were unexpectedly and negatively impacted. New perspectives were forced onto old relationships compelling these individuals to confront ‘self’. Complicating recovery was a sense of betrayal at being let down, even abandoned, by first responders. Trust diminished as society quickly lost interest in their plight and it was no longer headline news. This was further compounded when financial reparation proved grossly inadequate. Slowly, acceptance of a lone journey emerged whereby the participants began to redefine life differently, examining prior roles and expectations. This positive shift in interpretation promoted positive change: increased empathy, love, and gratitude. A decade later they were able to identify that trust-in-a-future had re-emerged. This study highlights the complexity of distress and recovery for these participants and suggests community preparation and support, including financial and psychological support, is currently challenged in the aftermath of a threat that is predicted to increase in frequency in many countries.

Original languageEnglish
Title of host publicationWIT Transactions on the Built Environment
Subtitle of host publicationDisaster Management 2017
EditorsC.A. Brebbia
Place of PublicationSouthampton, United Kingdom
Number of pages14
ISBN (Electronic)17433509
ISBN (Print)9781784661885
Publication statusPublished - 1 Jan 2017


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