It’s been a month since that first night of hellish wind and fire sent thousands of Wine Country residents fleeing for their lives. When the smoke had cleared and roads re-opened, it was like pulling back the curtain on a shocking landscape of destruction. The series of firestorms collectively would be the deadliest outbreak of fire in California history,
A multitude of people from north Santa Rosa extending south to Sonoma, lost homes or businesses. Even those who weren’t displaced may have suffered the intense fear of being evacuated or lived with the sustained anxiety that a fire might break out in their own neighborhood in the dead of night, while nature played a cruel game of whack-a-mole with firefighters. People throughout the North Bay in western Sonoma County and Petaluma, took in friends and families. Terrifying scenes of walls of flames and incinerated neighborhoods like Santa Rosa’s Coffey Park, where only chimneys were left standing, replayed on TV for weeks.
All of this happened before the wide eyes of children.
The effects of October 2017 will be felt for years along the North Coast, as a community already short on housing struggles to rebuild neighborhoods and restore charred landscapes. The recovery however, may be particularly hard for kids, whose sense of safety in their own home and community has been severely shaken. For some, the losses included homes they lived in, parks where they played, schools they attended –– the pillars of familiarity for a child.
Educators and mental health experts caution that kids may need extra support and understanding in the weeks and even months ahead, to process their experience and re-establish a sense of security that may have been lost.
“That is the biggest thing — the loss of what you can depend on, your neighborhood, familiar belongings. That can be very unsettling,” said Susan Karle, a marriage and family therapist in Sonoma who has worked with children and others who have been through traumatic situations. “Adults have a bit more pre-frontal cortex development so we can hold our perspective on things. But young children can’t. They don’t have the life experience and brain development. Big feelings well up.”
Janel Pena, whose Larkfield home burned to the ground in the Tubbs fire, is one of many Sonoma County parents grappling to give her two young children a sense of normalcy and assurance, even though they are living in a temporary home in a different town — Healdsburg — and have lost all their familiar things. Their immediate neighborhood of some 200 homes, is flattened and empty.
She said her 4-year-old son had been obsessing about fire before the firestorms hit, a fear brought on, she speculates, by fire drills at school. She assured him at the time he had nothing to fear. Now, after his worst fears came true, he solemnly told her, “Mommy, you lied.”
Pena said her kids have been remarkably resilient. But they still suffer from creeping fears, particularly at night. There are bad dreams.
“They’re just really scared to go to bed at night,” she said. “They’re sleeping in the same twin bed, which they never would have done. They ask to sleep with us all the time. They are just scared that it’s going to happen again. They ask almost every day, ‘Is the fire still going?’ ”