SA bushfire: My child's nightmare became a reality

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 Photo: Getty

My six-year-old daughter dreams of fire, and wakes up crying. Over and over again, she has a nightmare, and wakes in tears. It takes me days to pry the details from her, because she is too scared to want to speak the words.

I dreamt that our house burned down and my little sister was in it.

We soothe her. We say all the things that parents say. The house won't burn down. You're perfectly safe.

Sampson Flat fire front in the Adelaide Hills approaches goats and geese in a field.
Sampson Flat fire front in the Adelaide Hills approaches goats and geese in a field.  Photo: Eugene Klaebe

And then, on Saturday morning, we woke to the news that a little fire in somewhere called Sampson Flat is now a big uncontrolled fire spreading in all directions. By lunchtime, one of the areas that they recommended be evacuated was ours.

My husband and I conferred in low voices, making sure that we weren't in earshot of the children. We packed a suitcase with a few changes of clothes, the folder that stores all of our important paperwork, the laptop and chargers. On top we laid my daughter's adored, shabby old Brown Bear.

At the exit to the freeway, cars were lined up twenty deep waiting to get onto the road. Usually, we took a different route to Nana's house, but that route was closed off to the public. From our car, we could see smoke billowing in great black plumes from the direction in which we'd come. 

We kept the radio tuned to bushfire emergency information. A siren sound preceded every updated message, and my daughter jumped every time. There is a serious risk to lives, said the announcer. The Premier came on to say "We cannot guarantee your safety. We will not be able to protect you". 

When your children are born, you want to protect them from everything that could possibly harm them. But there comes a day, early or late, when something happens, and despite all your care and your love, you can't protect them. So how do you deal with that without losing their trust?

Dr Susie Burke, a senior psychologist in disaster response with the Australian Psychological Society, says that there are a few things you can do when you talk to children that help them feel reassured. "Those children have to learn eventually that the world is not completely safe, and it's better coming from their parents", explains Burke. "When young children ask about bad things now, they are partly checking that they can trust you to be around and be responsive later".

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Use age appropriate language

Ask them how much they know and what they want to know. Check their body language and responses: once they start signalling that they don't have more questions, you can stop.

Ask questions about how they're feeling. Share your own opinion. It is alright to tell them that you are worried as well, or that the news is sad. Rather than pretending that disasters don't happen, tell them what procedures are in place to make sure that everybody is as safe as possible.

A little knowledge is a dangerous thing

Children do not understand the way the media works. Kids need to know that the dangerous event happened once and then the media repeats it - it's not happening again and again. Says Burke: "After September 11, kids thought there were planes flying into those buildings every morning because there were so many replays". Make sure that they understand that what they are seeing is not the same thing as reality.

Talk about helping to make the world good

Children want to believe that the world is ultimately a good place. Giving children positive action makes them feel as if they are assisting to improve the world, and it gives them faith that, should they need help, people will reach out to them as well.

Even taking positive action years later seems to help; Alice Teasdale, who lived in the Adelaide Hills during the 1983 Ash Wednesday bushfires, remembers being caught on Greenhill Road heading into smoke, and how terrified she was.

"I was nine", says Alice, "and I re-lived it until I joined the State Emergency Service, which has been the most awesome and perfect way of dealing with it." Helping on the ground herself gives her "more of an intellectual appreciation for how different it is now, and a fascination with the emergency response". 

You might ask your children if they would like to donate some toys to children who have lost theirs in a fire, or to make thank you cards for the Country Fire Service volunteers who battled the blaze so bravely.

On Sunday morning, the weather dawned fine and mild, and we headed back up the hill to our unscathed house.  There's no more lying to my children that we will never be in danger. Instead, we tell them about our action plan - the suitcase that stands packed by the front door, the arrangements we have made for our elderly cat, the insurance that means that we will be able to rebuild. And, we promise, we will always, always bring Brown Bear.