How Australia’s Deadliest Fires Made Thousands of Students Fall Behind

The kids examined survived the Black Saturday wildfires of 2009 in Australia.
The kids examined survived the Black Saturday wildfires of 2009 in Australia.
Photo: Getty

Natural disasters come in all many forms, from hurricanes to wildfires. They all have something in common, though: They ruin people’s lives. And the effects can linger years after the event has passed, especially for elementary school children whose education has only just started, according to a new study.


Published in the Child Development journal Thursday, the study tracked 24,642 Australian children who attended primary schools in the state of Victoria and felt the impacts from the Black Saturday wildfires in 2009. These fires were among the worst the country has seen: 173 people died, thousands of structures burned, and more than 988,000 acres were torched, according to the Country Fire Authority. This new study found that kids’ academic progression suffered roughly a 5 to 6 percent loss as a result of the traumatic event.

That makes sense. Natural disasters like this cause kids to miss a lot of school. Often, they’re also dealing with the trauma of having lived through the disaster, losing a home, or losing a loved one. Their parents are dealing with all this alongside them, and that by itself may affect children.

The study authors, many of whom are from the University of Melbourne, examined health questionnaires and results from national academic assessments on writing, spelling, grammar, reading, and numeracy from children who attended schools that experienced low, medium, and high effects from the Black Saturday wildfires two to four years after the event. The results of these exams, which children take in the third and fifth grades, helped the team gauge any potential academic impacts. The team also assessed the kids’ developmental health and well-being based on questionnaires parents fill out when they enroll their kids in school.

After controlling for other potential factors—like parents’ education levels, gender, and language spoken at home—the authors found that found that the 2,117 kids living in areas with a higher impact (where people died and lost homes or those near where this happened) saw their reading and numeracy levels lower than where they should’ve been from third to fifth grade. Writing, spelling, and grammar didn’t see any statistically significant impacts, and the team hypothesizes that this may be because other subjects like math require “high concentration.”

“The findings highlight the extended nature of academic impact and identify important opportunities for intervention in the education system so children can achieve their full potential,” said Lisa Gibbs, the main author and director of the Jack Brockhoff Child Health and Wellbeing Program at the University of Melbourne, in a press release.


These results could be an understatement, too. Children who moved between the third and fifth grades, potentially as a result of the fires, weren’t included. These are the kids who may be most at risk of seeing their academics suffer. After Hurricane Katrina, for example, the children who were forced to move were likely to deal with bullying and discrimination. However, other studies (on an oil spill in Spain and earthquake in New Zealand) failed to find any effects two or three years down the line, suggesting more research is needed to fully understand the relationship between disasters and academic setbacks.

The kids who survived the Camp Fire in Paradise, California, or one of the myriad hurricanes to devastate American communities over the last few years, certainly deserve it.


Yessenia Funes is climate editor at Atmos Magazine. She loves Earther forever.