After the smoke clears: improving health communication strategies for children during bushfires

1 November 2022

Australians have been experiencing bushfires for generations, and once again, flames threatened homes and lives during the 2019/20 ‘Black Summer.’ While many Australians know what to do in the face of fire, the persistent smoke blanketing our eastern cities for months on was new. Health authorities scrambled to produce health messaging on how to stay safe from smoke, but inevitably, some important audiences were missed.

“Finding information for children in moments of disaster is challenging,” says Dr Erin Walsh, of the Population Health Exchange.

“It’s hard enough for parents to deal with the practical aspects of the situation, manage stress, and have their own information needs met. And knowing how to express it all in a way that children can feel reassured on top of all this can be really difficult.”

Walsh and colleagues* interviewed carers and educators of children aged 5-12 years old, including migrants speaking Arabic, Persian, Spanish, and Turkish at home. They concluded that children were missing out on important health messaging on smoke, in particular those of non-English speaking minority groups.

“We found that there was a very real need for communication assistance, as most of the information provided, such as news feeds, television programs, or website updates weren't suitable for children. Indeed, they could be a bit scary, and actually made the parent and children’s stress worse,” says Walsh.

None of the people surveyed had access to information about bushfire smoke specifically intended for children, thus requiring caregivers and educators to learn from a variety of sources and then tailor and curate the information for children. Multiple people also said it would be highly useful to have resources in their first language to assist them in communicating about bushfire smoke with their children, and other vulnerable members of the community.

“Interestingly, parents were focused on the health impacts of the smoke, whereas the children were much more interested in how it disrupted their day, for example asking when can I go back to school? Why can't I play outside?” says Walsh.

To address this information gap, the team are currently producing two children’s books about bushfire smoke. The picture book and short chapter book will be translated into multiple languages. These books will draw on the knowledge of experts in air quality, culturally and linguistically diverse cultures, and child trauma.

“We hope that parents and caregivers will sit down and read them with their children, and will not only meet the communication needs of the children, but to give the parents a way of discussing these issues with their kids,” says Walsh.

“We want to help address the children’s questions in a positive way. We want to give children a sense of agency – change their mindset from what they can’t do, to what they can. And importantly the books are going to be fun, and we hope children will enjoy reading them.”

Walsh and colleagues hope that the learnings from this project associated with the ‘Black Summer’ smoke can be transferred to other disaster planning and to meet the communication needs for carers, educators, and children.


*You can read more about the interviews and research informing this project in: Bushfire Smoke and Children’s Health – Exploring a Communication Gap, published Environmental Research and Publish Health.

Keep your eye out for the books in 2023. You can stay up-to-date on this project here.

**This project is a collaboration between researchers from the Population Health Exchange, Centre for Arab and Islamic Studies, Medical School, Australian Child and Adolescent Trauma, Loss and Grief Network, Centre for Public Health Data and Policy from the ANU; Headspace Australia; and Healthy Environments and Lives (HEAL) National Research Network.