Objectives To gain deeper understanding of the long-term lived experiences of adults affected by the 2003 Canberra bushfire, approximately five to six years after the disaster.

Method We present an overview of themes that emerged from thematic analysis of transcripts of in-depth semi-structured interviews of 25 adults directly affected by the 2003 Canberra bushfire interviewed from April 2008 to March 2009. Coincidentally, six of these participants were interviewed following the 2009 Victorian Bushfires and, where relevant, this is noted.

Results The overarching themes that emerged were sensory memory from the day of the fires, emotions, relationships, and other life events. Participants reported an extraordinary sensory experience. They also reported and demonstrated mixed emotions over five years after the incident, such as fear, grief and anger, intertwined with gratitude and a sense of achievement. The disaster experience bonded some relationships, strained others, and often simultaneously supported and caused difficulties in close relationships. In terms of other life events, participants gauged the impact of the fires in relation to other significant personal life events before or after the fire. A few reported a sense of having to face a series of hardships; however, others reported that experiencing other hardships put the bushfires in perspective. Those interviewed following the 2009 Victorian bushfires also presented an interplay between emotions relating to their own experience and their thoughts and feelings relating to the more recent bushfire in Victoria.

Conclusions Findings highlighted how the subjective experiences, perceived supportive and unsupportive factors, and meaning-making of people affected by disaster are embedded in the context of their lives in a dynamic and multi-dimensional way. People's thoughts and feelings cannot be solely attributed to the disaster in question, and arguably it would not be relevant to do so, as disasters always occur in the context of people's lives. Other life events not only add to the disaster experience, but the various life events can become lenses in which other life events are perceived, experienced, and processed. Grief, loss, fear, anxiety, and guilt can be intertwined with, and thus balanced by, a sense of gratitude and achievement. The role of life events and other factors such as relationships, thus cannot be simply categorised as supportive or risk factors. Subsequent disasters act as painful reminders of one's own experiences, but can also provide an opportunity to work through and relate to them as one who has gone through a similar experience and survived several years down the track.

Author Biography

Elspeth Macdonald BOccThy (UQ), PhD (LaTrobe)

Elspeth is a Senior Research Fellow at the Centre for Mental Health Research, The Australian National University, Canberra.

Theresia (Citra) Citraningtyas MBBS (U Indonesia), MWH (Melb)

Citra is a PhD Candidate, Psychological Medicine, The Australian National University, Canberra, and a Medical Officer at the One-Stop Crisis Center, Cipto Mangunkusumo General Hospital, Jakarta, Indonesia.

Beverley Raphael AM, MBBS, MD, FRANZCP, FASSA, FRCPsych, Hon.MD (N'cle, NSW)

Beverley is Professor & Head of Psychological Medicine at The Australian National University, Canberra. Address: Academic Unit of Psychological & Addiction Medicine ANU Medical School, The Canberra Hospital, PO Box 11, WODEN ACT 2606