Help For Those of Us Triggered By New Fires

5 Things I’ve Learned Since the 2017 North Bay Fires

The sunlight through the smoke in Sonoma County cast an eerie red light on the kitchen floor last week.  In an instant, it all came flooding back.  I instinctively grabbed my laptop.  I checked Cal Fire, the local newspaper, and the Northern California Firestorm Update Facebook Group.  I monitored the locations, destruction, and percentage of containment for each currently burning wildfire in California.  There at the dinner table, I had set up my own personal “situation room” within five minutes.  Scanning the house, I mentally logged where I kept our boxes of valuables and important documents gathered for last year’s fires.  I stopped short of packing fresh “go bags” for the kiddos.

What just happened?

1. PTSD is real, no matter what you did or didn’t lose in the fires.

I didn’t lose my house in the fires.  But I lost a sense of safety, or at least, the naive belief that fires couldn’t sweep through my hometown.  My senses became razor sharp, my muscles tensed, and I almost stood on tippy-toes, ready to do SOMETHING.  I felt danger, even thought the fires burned outside our county.

Fear was my first response, and that’s okay.  When a triggering event comes along, fear pops up first.  Judging myself for feeling fear doesn’t help.  But after the fear comes up, I do have the power to decide what to do with it.  I get to choose.

Reading through a thread on the Santa Rosa Firestorm Update FB page, someone posted a helpful list of things to do to stop the loop of panic and patrolling the fires.  I tried to find the post, but unfortunately I lost it in the shuffle.  I remembered her recommendations went something like this:

“You can put that anxious energy to work in a positive way.  Walk the dog.  Call a loved-one and talk about your feelings.  Stretch your muscles.  Do yoga.  Put on relaxing music.  Go for a jog.  Meet a friend for coffee.  Play with your kids.  Find a new recipe and try it out.  Build something.  Drive to the ocean.  But whatever you do, turn off your screens, and stop monitoring.  It doesn’t help when you’re triggered.”

Yes, it DID happen.  Wildfires invaded our lives.  But that doesn’t mean it WILL happen again.  Smoke overhead doesn’t guarantee loss of home.  Fires happen every year in California.  I remember growing up, watching flames glowing orange on the hills, right before bedtime.  It’s not an evil force trying to to get us.  Fires are a part of life too.

2. It Will Get Better: It Takes Time

I read a helpful article, Scars Run Deep From October Wildfires, by Martin Espinoza of the Press Democrat.  While our entire region is wading through varying degrees of trauma, his research provided a useful tool toward our future: a distinction between healthy grief over a disaster, and a debilitating mental illness.

Psychiatric Illness VS. Distress

Dr. Carol North, professor of psychiatry at the University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center, has spent a significant portion of her career studying the mental health outcomes of disaster survivors. A psychiatric epidemiologist, her work with survivors of the 1995 Oklahoma City bombing was instrumental in helping some mental health professionals assist survivors of the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.

“There’s an important difference between psychiatric illness and distress. They are very different phenomenons,” North said, adding that most people who live through severe disasters do not develop psychiatric illnesses.

North said those with a history of psychiatric illness before a disaster are at much higher risk for adverse mental health outcomes, while those who do not have a mental illness will see a fairly rapid decline in their level of distress. But it never completely goes away, she said.

“It may never go away because disasters are life-changing events, even among the resilient,” North said.

While this is true, people with a diagnosis of PTSD have reason to hope as well.  My search on the subject on PsychGuides.com turned up a description of PTSD.  An excerpt reads:

By working with a healthcare professional, individuals with PTSD can resolve their triggering factors and learn new and effective ways of coping with the stress of the past trauma.

Bottom line is: depending upon the degree to which we were affected by the fires just one year ago, we could still be in the thick of one of the five grieving stages outlines by the Kubler-Ross Model: denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance.  While we are rebuilding our lives, remember to give yourself, and your neighbor, grace to feel your ways through your processes.  Chances are, your distress will fade with time.

3. Congratulations!  You Are Now an Expert

Think about it:  the fires have given you emergency response training that you never wanted.  But now that you have it, you can use it to help anyone else in this situation.  When it comes to dealing with fires, you have become an expert in your field.

  • You know the location of all the valuables in your house.  You know what to pack and what to leave, should you evacuate.  You’ve evacuated before, or were on standby to do so.  You’ve had plenty of time to think about your go bag since then.
  • You know the importance of homeowners/renters insurance.  Personally.
  • You know the value of N95 masks, Target gift cards, and HEPA filter air purifiers from Costco.
  • You have seen social media shine as the main form of communication in an emergency.  When the cell towers burned, and calls dropped after a few seconds, I quickly hopped onto Facebook to mark myself as safe, as well as communicate with my other family and friends.  This was my main form of real-time communication with those around me.  Many of us didn’t go out for weeks at a time, to keep from breathing too much smoke.  We were told to keep the roads clear for emergency vehicles.  Social media and online news outlets were our lifeblood of communication.

4. Clarity of Priorities

There’s nothing like a complete upheaval of our whole lives to shake us awake to our priorities.  This was crystal clear during the fires as our whole region banded together to take care of each other.

For one friend who lost her home in Coffey Park, she said that the experience was like a “Spiritual Xanax.”  She said that after the initial few months had passed, while living in a rental with her family and deciding what to do next, she found that she really didn’t need much “stuff.”  She didn’t miss most of the things they lost in the fires.  All that she thought was valuable to her was taken in an instant, and she was left with what really mattered to her:  her family, her God, and her life.

As David J. Harris Jr. said in the Facebook video he posted of his own evacuation from his Redding neighborhood last week, “Don’t sweat the small stuff.  It doesn’t matter.  This here is the big stuff, but it doesn’t even matter.  What matters is that our family is safe.  We can always, always start again in life.”

If we can use our panic over smelling smoke again, let’s use it to drive ourselves into our loved-ones’ lives.  Let us nurture the connections that were so strong at first in our own trauma.  Let’s remember what’s important.  Cuddle your kids.  Kiss your spouse.  Visit your grandmother.  Send help to the current fire victims, if you can.  Like Harris reminded us, everything else is just stuff.

5. Create New Memories

Vikki Lenox, a Sonoma County Law Enforcement Chaplain, Emeritus, described a debriefing session she led after the fires with first responders.  These were a group of people on call those first few days of the fires.  All in the room had also lost their own homes.  She was helping them process what had happened, and what to do next.  One woman confessed that she didn’t even want to bring her kids to the burn site that used to be their home.  She wanted to spare them the trauma.  But Lenox suggested another tack: one of creating new memories.

“All you have right now are the old memories of your home as it used to be.”  She said, “But now is the time for creating new memories.  I suggest going to the store and buying a birthday cake. Tell your kids that it’s time to have a birthday party for your family.  Bring everyone to your home site, and there, among the ashes, have a celebration for the ‘re-birth’ of your family.  The old is gone.  The new is come.  Having a ceremony to mark this milestone is a good way to memorialize it.  It’s a way to honor your loss, and look forward to creating new memories.”  She went on to say that creating new memories is a pivotal part of living a life after great loss.  She speaks from experience: having lost her husband of 27 years to a tree accident.  “Grief must happen.  But creating new memories, having new experiences, seeing new sites, learning new things: this is all the stuff of living.  It gives your brain fresh things to think about and hold onto, in order to build a life after such great loss.”

One year later, we are all still fresh from our regional disaster.  Nobody knows what the future holds.  But I have learned a handful of important lessons since the fires.  My hope is that through this trauma we can understand ourselves more fully, make choices based on our priorities, and bounce back into new experiences that will enrich our lives, our relationships, and help bandage the wound of trauma over time – with each other, and with grace.