Ghostly images of skateparks and playgrounds in Canberra last summer shrouded in apocalyptic bushfire smoke are a reminder of what was a huge event for the national capital, just weeks before COVID-19 started to seemingly dominate our entire lives.
Now, a team from the Australian National University in Canberra is trying to make sense of it all, especially for our children, so they can cope in the future with bushfires.
Parents, carers and educators of children aged six to 12 are being asked to help produce a children’s story book about bushfire smoke and health.
Researchers from the ANU are calling on adults whose primary language is English, Turkish, Arabic or Persian to contribute to the book.
Professor Sotiris Vardoulakis, from the ANU Research School of Population Health, said last summer would have been a very unsettling time for many children in Canberra, with the thick smoke forcing people to stay inside or use masks when they went outside, a portent of what was to come with the looming coronavirus pandemic.
“Last summer was a whole new world for children,” Professor Vardoulakis said.
“Parents may have been stressed, people were wearing face masks and young people couldn’t go out to play. All those changes are difficult to internalise and digest.
“We want this book to be ready for the next summer season to help children cope better with these kinds of situations.”
The project is calling for contributors on a voluntary basis. Interviews will take 10 to 15 minutes and can be done in person, by phone, or online via Skype or Zoom.
Researchers say they will be better able to develop materials and health messages after speaking with people who have experienced the “black summer”.
“During the summer fires a lot of narrative and visual information was made available for the general adult population. This included health messages and environmental data related to the extreme smoke haze that blanketed ACT, NSW and Victoria over several weeks,” Professor Vardoulakis said.
“In contrast, there was very little information specifically tailored for young children, immigrants, refugees, and other vulnerable groups, which were exposed to the smoke and had to alter their daily behaviour to protect their health.”
Nicola Palfrey, director of the Australian Child and Adolescent Trauma, Loss and Grief Network, said the story book would be a chance for children to discuss what they had been through.
“The end result will be an accessible story book about smoke exposure, which parents or caregivers can read with their kids to talk about these things,” Ms Palfrey said.
“We are often asked how to talk to children about traumatic events. This story book will be a great mechanism for families to start a conversation.”
The story will be a picture book and researchers will also consider artistic contributions.