Domestic abuse concerns in aftermath of Fort McMurray fire

The Fort McMurray fire may spark a different kind of danger for women struggling to escape abusive relationships.

Natural disasters can lead to long-term increases in domestic abuse, research suggests

Victims of crime may suffer from permanent disabilities after an attack, which can lead to lasting impacts for the victims and their caregivers. (CBC)

There are concerns that long after the last flames are extinguished, the Fort McMurray wildfire may ignite a different kind of danger for women struggling to escape abusive relationships.

As thousands return to the city to begin rebuilding, experts warn the trauma of the disaster and the chaos that followed could lead to a prolonged increase in domestic violence.

"There is evidence that domestic violence goes up, long term, after a natural disaster," said Anu Dugal, director of violence prevention at the Canadian Women's Foundation.  

"Although we might want to focus in the moment, we need to talk about what the long-term effects might be on women and families in the Fort McMurray area."

Though research is limited, Dugal points to a report presented to the United Nations environment assembly in May this year, demonstrating that marginalized women experience higher rates of gender-based violence during times of crisis.

For example, the rate of gender-based violence increased in Mississippi after Hurricane Katrina struck in 2005. Reported incidents of violence rose from 4.6 per 100,000 people per day before the hurricane to 16.3 per 100,000 per day a year later. Similar trends have been seen in New Zealand following an earthquake in 2014, and in Japan after the March 2011 tsunami.

Natural disasters make people feel helpless, and that crippling feeling can add to an abuser's need for control.

This dangerous response can surface days, weeks, even months after the danger has passed. 

'There is a trauma of being somewhat lost, of losing your anchors,' 

And while perpetrators are likely to grow increasingly violent under the pressure, victims become more vulnerable; law enforcement agencies become strained, social networks break down and "safe spaces" such as crisis centres and shelter programs are suddenly shuttered, or simply overwhelmed.

Dugal said this sudden void in services can leave women more vulnerable.

"There is a trauma of being somewhat lost, of losing your anchors, and not knowing who is out there to help you, because the services you normally go to are shut down," Dugal said during an interview with CBC Edmonton's Radio Active. All those factors increase the chances that women might experience violence.

"We have to look at many different complex factors when we think about preventing violence against women in these circumstances."

Shelters still standing 

Waypoints, which operates Fort McMurray's only emergency shelter spaces, has been closed since May 3, when the wildfire breached city limits and forced thousands to flee for their lives. 

Dozens of female clients were relocated to other regional shelters, some took refuge in evacuation centres or in the homes of family and friends, Michele Taylor, the shelter's executive director, said in a statement. 

The 36-bed emergency shelter, long-term housing facility, an affordable housing apartment building, as well as domestic violence programs and two crisis lines have all been shut down since the fire.

All three Waypoints buildings survived the fire and are awaiting assessment for smoke and water damage. They plan to resume operations by July 4.

Long-term supports for clients and staff will be critical in the coming weeks, Dugal said. 

"We need to focus on making sure the shelter is ready and the shelter staff can provide those services," Dugal said, "without being overwhelmed."