Master's studies gain insight into tragedy

As news reports filtered out of fire-ravaged Slave Lake, Alta., recently, tales of heroism and perseverance in the midst of personal tragedy riveted the public. The stories took on even more meaning to University of Lethbridge master's student Ainslee Kimmel, who is completing her thesis by studying the effects of wildfire and the resiliency of people who experience its wrath.

Kimmel's study focus is on the 2009 West Kelowna fire but she couldn't help but draw similarities to the stories she hears about the residents of Slave Lake.

Ainslee Kimmel
Master's student Ainslee Kimmel pursues a Master in Education degree while working with noted health sciences researcher Dr. Judith Kulig.

"I think a big thing I see that's similar between the two is the factor of the unknown," she says. "A lot of people said the most stressful thing about the fire was the act of being evacuated, and then hearing reports on what parts of town were and were not affected by the fire, not knowing if they had or had not lost everything."

Kimmel, a Calgary native, came to the University with a bachelor of psychology degree from the University of Victoria. Her goal is to eventually become a registered psychologist, which might seem contrary to her master's work (MEd in the Faculty of Education) at first glance, but it's all by design. She chose the University of Lethbridge over other graduate programs because it is allowing her a more hands-on, practical approach to her vocation.

"The other schools I was accepted to were more research oriented and I wanted to finish my master's with a practical skillset, and I found that here," she says. "It allows me to focus more on counselling as opposed to a master's in health psychology, which puts you in the stream for studying a PhD and possibly teaching."

Working with supervisor Dr. Judith Kulig, an expert in wildfire research and community resiliency from a health sciences perspective, Kimmel sees the practical potential of her findings.

"I just want to know how people cope after something like a wildfire event," she says. "Wildfires in Canada are increasingly a big issue and if we can determine how people cope, hopefully we can develop strategies to help people function better after a wildfire."

Kimmel actually worked with Kulig as a research assistant for a year prior to the beginning of her thesis. Despite the fact that she's pursuing a master's of education degree, she was given special dispensation to have Kulig as her supervisor. She travelled with Kulig to conduct interviews and acquire data following a wildfire event in Barriere, B.C., and is using that experience to guide her through her study of the West Kelowna event.

"Through the work I did with Dr. Kulig, we saw people in Barriere who made it through the fire without losing their homes and yet they had lingering symptoms of depression, while some of those who lost their homes were able to bounce back quicker," says Kimmel. "Understanding how that works and how we can help these people on various levels is the ultimate goal."

While Kulig's research emphasis focuses on community resiliency as a whole, Kimmel's approach, as a psychologist in training, is more specific.

"I felt I could pursue something more on the individual aspects of wildfire," she says, noting that her findings, although preliminary, are not entirely negative. "I'm also looking at how people grow from the experience as a result. It's termed post-traumatic growth in the literature and discusses how people can go through something traumatic and months and even years later benefit from it in terms of developing closer relationships, a better attitude on life and a feeling of strength and confidence that they were able to get through it."

To date, Kimmel has made one trip to Kelowna, interviewing a host of government and firefighting personnel. She expects to return to complete her interviews this fall and will finish writing her thesis over the winter. Kimmel says her excellent relationship with Kulig has been integral to the process.

"She's such a caring person and is really there to help a student. She's also always included me, in terms of authorship, on anything we've worked on," says Kimmel. "We get along so well on a personal level and I don't know if everybody has that with their supervisor – it really can make a difference."

Kimmel's research was made possible by a $17,500 Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council grant.


· Kimmel's study actually includes three fire events in and around West Kelowna in 2009, including: Terrace Mountain Fire (9,277 hectares burned); Glenrosa Fire (400 hectares); and the Rose Valley Fire (200 hectares).

· Only four structures were lost in West Kelowna, despite the potential of losing many more that were threatened, and Kimmel says her preliminary findings show a sense of pride from residents over how the crisis was handled.

· Kimmel accompanied Dr. Kulig to Texas to present findings from her research at an international conference.

This story first appeared in the Legend. For a look at the Legend in a flipbook format, follow this link.