“In December I started packing for a gruelling (as it turned out) stint of "scribing" for a Firefighting Strike team where it turned out we successfully defended a number of properties in East Lynne and Brooman. This was the day the Cooraban fire expanded from ~2000 to 40,000Ha, crossed the highway and threatened/ took out houses in N. Durras Depot Beach etc. Day 1 was 21 hrs ending in a bed at 3.30 AM. The next day was shorter…in bed at 2.30 AM! (After having been the lead driver in a convoy where we drove through a fire storm and the back of one of the trucks caught alight.)
Needless to say I needed pain killers to get through. Since then I have been on a couple more strike teams, and was packed to do a stint in Moruya headquarters on New Year’s Eve day when at midnight the fires burst out of the wilderness in Brogo and I enacted our street fire phone 'tree' and we ended up with quite a party in our safe earth integrated house. At 5.30 I went into town to help start up a communication cell at our local fire HQ.
Been there most days ever since! Sitting talking on a radio is agony for my back but being at the centre of directing fire trucks is very distracting to the mind! Balance between pain control with drugs is ever present in my mind and I am now only offering myself on alternating days. In fact this week we have the State Sherriff's office doing coms and I have 6 days off (though' always on standby for local knowledge).
So now I have time to help out mates who have been burned out. It is very hard to know what to prioritise as every day I learn of another friend burned out...and it is still happening. Last night I got up and put my glasses on to verify that the blur I was seeing was in fact a star...My first for 36 days!
We are surrounded by burnt area so now my wife can begin to relax, but she did ring me a couple of times in the early days to ask me to remind her why I was safe at work and why she was at home!
Whatever the schedule for the day I (have to) start the day with an hour in my spa but have had to take up a low level of opioid to get through the day. I am very mindful that it is the equivalent of post op self-prescribing and is for current trauma and not chronic pain, though' the way this summer is going.... My wife, Fiona, is very worried that I may slip back into addiction and is already noticing negative character traits developing- she says because of the drugs- I say because of focus on crisis…
As to others living with chronic pain through the fires , personally it seems not much different to living through the drought. More work, for less result and seemingly no end in sight. Whether burned out or not, these whole communities are going to suffer long term pain. There won't be any unemployed psychologists for years to come! The communities are showing remarkable resilience and self-help from the ground up, but what is happening inside individual minds may take a long time to 'heal'.
Personally I have temporarily swapped straining my back from lifting heavy buckets of water to wrist pain from scribing- in fact I have just made an appointment to hopefully have yet another wrist operation to relieve wrist pain - seems it is easier to work on hand than back pain.”
These are the words of Don Firth from Brogo in Bega. Don is one of the inaugural members of Painaustralia’s Consumer Advisory Group. He has been a long time front line firefighter, and this combined with building and farm work took its toll on his body and in 2011 he became a disabled pensioner. With a full knee replacement and several back and shoulder injuries, he was forced to greatly reduce his physical activities. But Don maintained a gentle balance with Tai Chi, singing in choirs and daily spas working together to improve and maintain the fitness of both his body and mind. Over time Don had been gradually able to reduce his dependence on medication and increased his physical activity with the aid of courses in mind training and pacing. That is until the start of this summer.
We have a big agenda ahead for this year, as we enter a crucial phase of adoption and implementation of the National Strategic Action Plan for Pain Management, the blueprint for a national approach to pain. With the bushfire catastrophe and the looming impact of climate change, this task has now taken on an unprecedented level of urgency.
Now we need to see similar support for people living with chronic pain who are already uniquely vulnerable to the devastating impact of catastrophes like these bushfires. Just like Don, there will be many other people, who live each day as a fine balancing act with their chronic pain, only to have catastrophic events present a barrier in more ways than we can recount.
If anything, we now have more of a responsibility to advocate for the implementation of a national biopsychosocial approach made accessible for all Australians. As the National Action Plan progresses to Australian Premiers at the Council of Australian Governments, we hope that they will all take this significant step towards ensuring that Australia will lead the world in both implementing best practice strategies to tackle chronic pain and also prevent the prevalence from rising with increasing risk of climate induced catastrophes.