A pair of Quebec researchers is hoping the mass evacuation of about 80,000 people during May’s Fort McMurray wildfire will provide them with a unique opportunity to learn more about the symptoms and effects of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).
“It’s a catastrophe…we don’t have often in Canada, such a large-scale catastrophe,” Camille Pepin, one of the researchers involved, said. “A lot of people went through a trauma because they were afraid to die…many people actually drove through the flames.”
Watch below: A video posted to YouTube shows the incredible scene around Fort McMurray as a resident and his family try to flee the area with the wildfire quickly approaching.
Pepin and Laura Savage, both psychology graduate students and research assistants at Laval University, have already spent three weeks interviewing Fort McMurray residents about their experiences during the disaster. Now, the team is in Edmonton to interview more survivors and is looking for 300 evacuees to complete an online survey.
While nobody died directly as a result of the wildfires and injuries as a result of the disaster were kept to a minimum, Pepin says in the chaos of the situation, many people didn’t know at the time whether loved ones had been injured or killed.
“Some families were separated, the children were going north with the school buses for example, and the parents were driving south,” she said. “There was a lot of fear so that’s what makes this a special combination of events, which sadly leads to a lot of post-traumatic stress disorder symptoms.”
Pepin and Save say they want to learn about how the state of emergency affected how people think and sleep and what impact the fires had on mental disorders like depression and anxiety. They also hope to evaluate what kinds of symptoms of PTSD evacuees are still experiencing and what coping strategies people have been employing to get through the ordeal.
“I think the literature on this disorder has focused more on (military) veterans and people who experienced the war,” Pepin said. “It’s easy to forget that escaping a fire…can also lead to post-traumatic stress disorder.”
Sandra Legacy is a 50-year-old wife, mother and grandmother of four. Her family was able to escape the blaze but lost their home and in the chaos of fleeing the fire, she was separated from her husband and daughter for three days. While taking refuge at Northlands in Edmonton, Legacy says her phone was broken and she wasn’t even sure where her family was or if everyone was OK.
“When you go through a traumatic event, it follows you,” Legacy, who already filled out the online survey, said. “I’m thankful to these researchers who have taken it upon themselves to want to study this and I think it’s very important.”
Legacy says she already struggled with anxiety and depression before the wildfire broke out and that she already had difficulty dealing with high-stress situations.
“Escaping from a fire would definitely fall into all of those categories,” she added. “I still have lingering flashbacks of the actual escape from the fire. I have nightmares…just closing my eyes, I see flames that are so vivid.”
“In Fort McMurray, we saw it a lot – people who feel like they need to be strong, they don’t have time to feel bad, they don’t have time to express their feelings but it is a trauma,” Pepin added. “Escaping a fire is a trauma – definitely – and it’s OK to feel bad.”
She says some people are experiencing mental health issues connected to “survivor’s guilt” because they didn’t lose their homes or endure any financial hardships.
The project is the brainchild of Dr. Geneviève Belleville, a psychologist with Laval University.
Pepin and Savage hope evacuees who participate in their research project use it as an opportunity to reflect on their wildfire experiences while acknowledging for many, revisiting the disaster can bring up painful memories.
“I hope people are more open to understanding that, ‘OK, it’s over, get on with your life’ is not realistic,” Legacy said. “Yes, we have survived the fire, we are alive, however, we are not living our lives normally and it takes a toll on a person.”
-With files from Su-Ling Goh, Global News