Decision-makers under pressure
In Chapais, in Nord-du-Québec, forest fires chased part of the population out of the town twice at the end of last spring. The mayor, Isabelle Lessard, had to manage the evacuations… and the post-crisis.
“I know that somewhere in July we were no longer in danger, but despite that, I was still hypervigilant and on alert. I was always extremely stressed and extremely unwell,” says Isabelle Lessard, who managed this small municipality of around 1,500 inhabitants.
In mid-September, plagued by nightmares and “the feeling that it never ended,” she was diagnosed with post-traumatic stress and placed on leave. Nearly two months later, she had to admit that she needed more time. The resignation of the woman who, at 23, was the youngest mayor in Quebec, created a shock wave in the municipal world.
Mme Lessard is doing “much better” today. But in Chapais, where 48 people lost their lives in the tragic fire of 1er January 1980, the “collective stress” of the summer of 2023 has left its mark, she believes.
“It may not be huge, nor that noticeable, but it is certain that people will have fears associated with it. I don’t have statistics, but we know that there have been increases in requests for psychosocial services in the region since the fires. »
The shaken population
When a fire rages and threatens to burn down our city, our home, the psychological consequences are not negligible.
When the Nord-du-Québec Public Health Department surveyed its population on the impacts of forest fires last summer, nearly a quarter (23%) of the 775 respondents had a negative perception of their mental health (fair to poor). ).
Three-quarters experienced stress and more than half had sleep problems. More than a third reported other “mental health problems” (anxiety, decreased concentration, sadness/depression or irritability/anger).1
“A fire that breaks out near the house is a traumatic event in itself,” confirms Geneviève Belleville, professor-researcher at the School of Psychology at Laval University. Specialist in post-traumatic stress, Mme Belleville conducted research into the aftermath of the massive Fort McMurray, Alberta, wildfire that forced the evacuation of nearly 90,000 people and destroyed 2,400 homes in 2016.
In Quebec, the villages and main residences were finally saved, but “it is people’s perception, the feeling of threat during the event which will have the most impact”, underlines the researcher.
The intense fear of losing one’s life, or one’s loved ones, or one’s home is an exceptional event that causes a series of chain reactions in the brain, which cause these events to become imprinted.
Geneviève Belleville, professor-researcher at the School of Psychology at Laval University
While awareness of mental health issues has improved a little with the pandemic, “there’s still a long way to go,” she says.
“People will seek medical advice much more if they have breathing difficulties after breathing smoke than if they have post-traumatic symptoms. »
1 Public health department of Nord-du-Québec, Presentation of the results of the survey to the Jamesian population on the impacts of forest fires, October 23, 2023.
With the record season experienced last summer, many urban firefighters found themselves working in support of the Society for the Protection of Forests Against Fire (SOPFEU). Days of 10 to 12 hours interspersed with unrefreshing sleep, at high temperatures and at the mercy of changing winds, recalls Richard Amnotte, deputy director of the Lévis Fire Safety Department and Quebec spokesperson for Objectif Resilience, a mental health program for firefighters.
Volunteer firefighters from threatened municipalities suffered additional stress, since in addition to “their mission as firefighters to protect the city”, they also had to “protect their families, their property” and, in certain cases, “remain on their territory while their family was evacuated.
“A house fire is controllable, we’re going to get it. While the forest fire controlled us for two weeks,” summarizes Jonathan Fortin, a volunteer firefighter for almost three years in Normétal, in Abitibi-Ouest.
At one point, the blaze became so threatening that the volunteer firefighters themselves had to evacuate on orders from SOPFEU.
We were on edge, on edge. We were afraid. We felt a little helpless. We firefighters, when we leave, the fire is out. We’re not leaving because the fire is there! Being forced to do that was a shock!
Jonathan Fortin, volunteer firefighter
Subsequently, “we received a lot of support from the population, we were decorated, and it went well despite everything,” he assures us.
“The most difficult thing is today: we lost all our beautiful landscape. We have nothing left around our village, it’s all burned. This is what we find the most difficult, everyone. »
In more than 30 years as a volunteer firefighter, Gaétan Petit had never experienced a fire or evacuation of such magnitude.
For an urban firefighter, “a big fire is a big blow to take for one to three hours and then it’s over. There, it was a marathon.” After “six or seven days at 18 or 19 hours a day,” the Normétal firefighters requested help from the surrounding fire departments.
“With a post-mortem, we realized that perhaps we should have asked for it more quickly. »
More than six months later, “I’m doing well,” assures Mr. Petit.
“It was more worrying for the people who were outside, who were evacuated, because they were going on social media,” he explains.
“At one point, there were houses that had burned, half the village was burned, and that wasn’t true at all. There is a chalet at Lake Pajegasque, I think it burned down four times on social media! »
In such circumstances, evacuees must trust “the right messages,” he said, referring to the official information that was communicated every evening in his region.
“Not on social media: it’s a terrible stressor for people when they’re just on that. It almost created panic! »
To read tomorrow: “Longueuil tackles its rain floods”