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Sonoma County fires: Will the kids who lost so much be all right?

Hidden Valley school psychologist Matt Parks listens to students discuss their reaction to the fire during a restorative circle at the elementary school. (photo by John Burgess/The Press Democrat)

MEG MCCONAHEY,

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?’ ”

Pena tries in every way to offer them assurance. They have flashlights by their beds, and she allows the dog to sleep with them.

“There’s been a lot of staying up later, and hanging out more. We’ve just been a little more lax with them. I’m trying to stay longer at school in the morning after I drop them off. The teachers are encouraging that, just to comfort them and make sure they know they are safe.”

The emotional fallout from the fires is not confined to kids who directly lost their homes, said Matthew Park, the lead psychologist for Santa Rosa City Schools.

“We have to think the whole city and the whole county has experienced this in one way, shape or form.” he said. “We just need to recognize that kids will have some different emotional responses and at different times, and that is OK, and to give them room to process.”

For kids, the changes in their social community also can be disorienting and upsetting. Neighborhoods may be gone, and with that, disrupted friendships. If they didn’t have to move themselves, they have friends and classmates who did. Some children will stay and be driven to class, others may never return. The churn is likely to continue for months as families look for more permanent housing.

It’s all very close to home for school psychologist Park. He is based out of Hidden Valley School, which was dramatically affected by the fires. The school’s satellite campus on Parker Hill Road was destroyed. In all, 146 students — one-quarter of the school population — lost their homes. The kindergarten through second-graders at the satellite school, 85 in all, also lost their classrooms and will have to adjust to a new school, wedged into a central meeting areas between classrooms.

But Park, the father of two young children, is also dealing with it in an even more personal way. His own home was lost in the fast-moving blaze that engulfed Fountaingrove.

For children, losing everything means toys and treasures are gone. Park said his 9-year-old daughter was in tears at the loss of things she cherished, including her American Girl doll. Someone kindly bought her the exact doll to replace it, which soothed her. Parents were streaming into a fire relief center set up in the old Stanroy’s Music on Fourth Street in Santa Rosa. Among the school supplies, clothing, baby gear and other necessities are stuffed animals. And when a parent found an exact stuffed animal that their child had lost, they were overjoyed.

So what signs of stress should parents, grandparents and other caring adults watch out for, and how can they help children cope in the aftermath of the largest disaster to strike the North Coast in modern history?

“Clinically, we do have to remember that kids are going to experience some post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), and a replaying of the events” said Rebecca Bailey, a Glen Ellen psychologist who specializes in treating children and families who have endured traumatic situations. Bailey is the therapist who worked with Jaycee Dugard, who was abducted as a child and held captive for 18 years. Bailey also provides clinical support for Dugard’s JAYC Foundation (Just Ask Yourself to Care), which helps families recover from kidnappings and other traumatic events.

“What’s really important for adults to remember is that kids look to them to use as barometers of safety,” Bailey said. “It is incredibly important that we respond with a sense of ability to manage what is happening around us. We have to stay cool and collected. We can let them see us sad, but we also need to let them see us problem solve.”

Bailey will be taking her own advice: she lost her own home in Glen Ellen the first night of the Tubbs fire. She was out of the country at the time, but her 21-year-old daughter was at home and barely escaped with the help of her stepbrother, who motorcycled up from Sonoma. Together the two drove through flames on Dunbar Road to reach safety.

Bailey recommends holding to routines as much as possible, even if you’re in a different home and neighborhood. If children seem anxious, let them express or soothe themselves in ways that are appropriate to their age. For very young kids, that could be drawing or coloring.

“Make sure children have the opportunity to play wherever they are. With older pre-teens and teens, conversation and reassurance is still very important. Tell them we are going to get through this. This is really tough but there will come a time when this will be behind us.”

She said parents shouldn’t be surprised if children experience some regression, acting younger than their years.

“It’s a cry for a need for containment, security and comfort,” Bailey said.

Joyce Avignon-Hamilton, district counselor for the Piner-Olivet School District in Santa Rosa, whose Schaefer School is attended by many kids in the devastated Coffey Park area, said parents should limit their children’s exposure to media about the fire and be mindful of what they say within a child’s earshot, so they’re not “re-traumatizing” them.

Younger children may not have the language or maturity to understand or express their feelings.

Therapist Susan Karle said “eco-therapy” is healing, getting outdoors and re-establishing a sense of safety in a landscape that may feel dangerous after a fire.

She said if children are feeling anxious, a helpful exercise to play indoors or out is “The Five Senses.” Children are asked to name five things they see right now, four things they can touch right now, three things they can hear, two things they can smell and one thing they can taste,

“It helps bring them into the present moment,” she said, “and away from worries of the past or for the future.”

When talking to anxious children, it’s good to make eye contact and to be present, without distracting devices.

“When feelings come up, slow down, make eye contact with your child and listen,” she said. “When children feel heard, they feel understood and they can feel more trust for those caring for them. Children may show feelings about small things because it’s too hard to talk about the bigger events. Accept what they express, and show caring and empathy.”

Paul Drake, a teacher whose second-graders lost their classroom at Hidden Valley Satellite, said kids may act out in different ways, from daydreaming to distraction to rage.

“Anger is one thing and rage is something else. Anger is healthy and rage is an unhealthy reaction to anger,” he said.

Children will respond differently according to their age. Older kids may be more likely to hold it in, Drake said, and express their trauma later in some unexpected ways.

“Little kids may be more unconscious about it and unfocused or more consistently crying or acting in ways people might call misbehaving,” he added.

Children may also experience a greater sense of loneliness and anxiety about what their parents are doing and where they are.

Park said some children are more resilient than others. And children who have experienced previous trauma are likely to be more vulnerable this time around.

“Some kids may turn around within a couple of weeks,” he said. If they seem to still be experiencing issues in six months, that’s when parents should seek more expert help with a school counselor or child therapist.

You can reach Staff Writer Meg McConahey at meg.mcconahey@pressdemocrat.com or 707-521-5204.