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It’s the season of soft light, when candles are flickering and hearth fires roaring. But in the aftermath of October’s firestorms, which destroyed thousands of homes in Sonoma County and shrouded the air with heavy smoke for days, many people may find themselves looking warily at those flames that used to symbolize cozy comfort and peace.

“Fire has been one of those things that keeps us warm and has always had positive memories,” said Diana Klein, director of the Sonoma County Regional service for Jewish Family Childrens Services. “But as the holiday season of fire-lit nights at home swings into high gear, people may have a new relationship around fire.”

Anyone who lived through those harrowing weeks, whether they lost a home, were evacuated, or just waited and wondered in fear if their neighborhood would be next, may be triggered by candles, wood fires, gas flames and even Christmas trees. Flames and fires are so ubiquitous in December that’s it’s difficult to avoid them.

This may be one year however, when you should give yourself permission to change your traditions, mental health experts says.

“What we do know about trauma stressers or triggers is that they are typically biochemical reactions in the brain that are activated through the senses,” said Alyse Clayman, a licensed clinical social worker and clinical director with Jewish Family and Children’s Services in San Rafael.

So the scent of smoke or the sight of crackling logs could trigger negative feelings –– anything from slight unease to high anxiety.

“When people are triggered it’s not particularly logical. The brain gets hijacked by emotions. It doesn’t realize you’re not in danger anymore. You immediately feel back in danger,” Clayman said.

I am not putting out, nor lighting my usual array of candles. Somehow just doesn’t seem right,” said Marilu Downing, an artist from Occidental. “Especially with Southern California on fire all those inferno images quelled my love of flame.”

Clayman recommends being flexible this year, and understanding that negative feelings may be lying beneath the surface of holiday smiles.

That may be particularly challenging for people of the Jewish faith who are in the midst of celebrating Hanukkah. The winter holiday is marked by the lighting of eight candles over eight nights on a special candleholder called a menorah.

The whole holiday is centered around the tradition of the lighting of the menorah. Many people like the tradition of putting the menorah in a window. But that can be a safety risk. If you or any family members are feeling uneasy around fire, Clayman said, there are several things you can do.

One alternative is to place the menorrah in a less flammable place, like on a countertop. Or, Clayman said, you could place the menorrah in the sink after your lighting ritual is complete, and allow the candles to burn out there.

There are also many flameless, plug-in and battery-operated menorahs available at popular places like Bed Bath & Beyond and Home Depot that run on low voltage LED lights. If you’re not a strict traditionalist, this may be the year to go easy on yourself with artificial lights, Clayman said.

It’s also important to take precautions around the menorah or any lit candles. Klein recommends taking care not to bunch up fabric or other flammable things near the candle of menorah. Also, don’t put candles near drapes.

Most modern homes now have gas fireplaces. But even clean and carefully controlled and contained flames have the visual appearance of fire. Be aware of the feelings of family members and other holiday guests around fireplaces, stoves and candles, Klein said. If you have a wood-burning fireplace or stove, you might consider, she added, leaving a friendly note with neighbors so that if they smell smoke in the neighborhood, they won’t panic or become fearful.

If you’re having people over and there are lots of candles on your display, check in with your guests to see if they’re comfortable with open flames, however contained, Klein said.

Flameless and battery-operated candles are also a realistic alternative to quell fire fears. They come in everything from pillars to tapers and are widely available. If you celebrate Christmas, and like to keep your tree lit all night, make a vow this year to turn them off before you go to bed to head off any fears of fire, Clayman added.

With children, talk through the traditions. Clayman said a colleague of hers recently worked with a Sonoma County mother to explore ways to tailor the holiday traditions to address his trauma.

“The ideas they came up with were talking about the candle lighting before it happened so he wouldn’t be surprised, having him sit on mom’s lap while lighting the candles, and verbally reassuring him that he is safe,” she explained.

Keep as a guiding principle, compassion for yourself, friends and loved ones who went through a traumatic event, Klein stressed.

“The real theme is to be aware of how this horrible tragedy has different ways of affecting different people,” she said. “This season is not only about giving gifts but about compassion.”

Therapists encourage people to get adequate sleep and rest and eat well, and reach out to others for company and support. Being tired or isolated makes one more vulnerable. And they should remember that they may not always feel this way.

For Deb Pool of Glen Ellen, that already is beginning to happen. She said during the extended evacuation of her small Sonoma Valley town, she found the normal smell of wood smoke challenging. But as winter approaches, she is slowly warming to it again.

“Normally that smell I have always wanted as a perfume because it reminded me of campfires and good times, but during that time it did change and I even said I think I have a new relationship with fire,” she said. “Since then, we have made candles (an annual tradition) and have burned them, and we have loaded up our seasoned firewood and have had wood-burning stove fires. With some time, and positive remembrance, fire has once again come to its usual, gentle, appreciated place.”

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

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