Australia's young fire survivors struggle to cope

Thursday, February 19, 2009

BUXTON, Australia -- The crayon colors on the page were bright -- orange, red, sunny yellow. But the drawings were as dark as the blackened remains of the landscape near the tiny Australian schoolhouse.

Inside, 9-year-old Phillip Watt pressed a finger to each image and remembered what he saw on that day when his town, his house and his beloved bicycle were destroyed in Australia's deadliest wildfires. Here was the family car racing away from the blaze. There were the red and orange flames chewing up the gum trees.

He pointed to a creature lying on the road. "That's a cow," he said steadily. "A dead cow."

Phillip's classroom was plastered with pictures like these -- each scribble and swirl a therapeutic purging of a child's memory from the disastrous day that took at least 201 lives and destroyed more than 1,800 homes in southeastern Australia.

The psychological toll on these boys and girls will be formidable, experts say, similar to the reactions children had following major traumas such as Hurricane Katrina, the Sept. 11 attacks and the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami.

"Fire, like waves in water, obeys no rules," said Dr. Lynne Rubin, a founding member of the New York Disaster Counseling Coalition, which helped children after the Sept. 11 attacks. That, she said, "is particularly terrifying to kids."

Range of reactions

Children's reactions range from sleeplessness to nightmares to post-traumatic stress disorder.

Inside the small schoolhouse in Buxton, on the outskirts of the devastated village of Marysville, Phillip spoke longingly of his lost bike, his old bed and his Wii.

"Marysville was a good town and all of Marysville's gone," he said. "And now we have to stay at our Nan and Pop's -- and they're always grumpy."

Younger children can't often grasp the full scope of a tragedy. Instead, they fixate on a toy or object that was lost, said Ric Pawsey, director of therapeutic services at Berry Street Victoria, a child welfare organization.

The incinerated teddy bear or the blanket turned to ash were not just playthings but sources of comfort, anchors to a child's life before the tragedy, he said. "If they lose key pieces, they become very thrown by that."

The Buxton students' drawings illustrate the intense trauma of that day. A blue bucket in one picture represented the water a boy threw on his family's property as he tried to save it from the flames.

"He's in grade five and he has to protect his house," teacher Lorraine Whitehead said, staring first at the image then down at the goose bumps on her arms. "It's hard for adults to understand, let alone kids."

The intensity of fires makes the emotional effects more acute, said Australian Psychological Society president Bob Montgomery.

"If you've ever been in a fire, it's the noise -- it's just overwhelming. So for little kids, that would be one of the most horrible parts of it," he said.

Experts say it is critical for children to return quickly to their normal routines -- no easy task in the face of so much destruction. Entire towns were burned off the map Feb. 7 and some 7,500 people were left homeless.

Of the 27 students at Buxton Primary School, only 13 had returned to class by Tuesday. All students survived, but many were not ready to leave their parents -- and some parents weren't ready to let their children go.

For those who showed up, there was comfort in routine. Ten-year-old Cody Fiddler, whose house was destroyed, celebrated his birthday with a sponge cake. Girls giggled and clustered around a board game. Boys pushed toy trucks through the sandbox.

"Children always really want routine and they just want to go back to being normal," principal Elizabeth Thomas said as students clambered over playground equipment under a hazy sky. "We had children who are not always happy but they came to the school yesterday and they were beaming."

Still, counselors kept a watchful eye over the students. A hot wind still carried the acrid smell of smoke, and just 30 feet from the school's wooden porch, the ground was blackened and the trees were dead and dark as coal. The fire line was a chilling reminder of how close the school came to destruction.

Phillip's 5-year-old sister Casey looked quietly at the picture she drew of her family's narrow escape. She wandered through the school's garden in search of strawberries, examining a snail before joining the boys in the sandbox. She lost all her shoes in the blaze and was slightly unsteady in her too-big pink-and-white donated sneakers.

In the nearby hills, smoke still rose into the sky.

Normal, Thomas acknowledged, is a long way off.

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