Colorado firestorm triggers trauma, fear for some Sonoma County residents
Lisa Israel followed the news reports out of Colorado a week ago, as the Marshall fire, propelled by hurricane-force winds, ripped through the suburban towns of Louisville and Superior, destroying more than 1,000 homes and forcing the rapid evacuation of 30,000 people.
There was a time when scenes of fiery mayhem would have triggered a fight-flee-or-freeze response in Israel, who lost her home in Coffey Park to the Tubbs fire in 2017. Not now. Because after staring down almost annual threats in the three years following that tragedy, she and her husband, Dave, called it quits and abandoned the community where he grew up, and where she had lived for about 35 years.
Now living just outside of Kansas City, Missouri, Lisa no longer gets that sense of dread when watching buildings burn on the evening news.
“I call it the pit,” Israel said by phone. “When you look at things like that, you get the feeling someone just punched you in the stomach. I had that feeling for at least two months after the Tubbs fire. It just didn’t go away. But after moving away and just being in a different environment, I haven’t had that at all.”
Even many of those who remain committed to Sonoma County acknowledge the emotional toll the waves of wildfires — Tubbs, Nuns, Kincade, Glass and Walbridge, to name the most prominent — have taken over the past four years, and how the cumulative experience has resulted in lingering emotional trauma.
“It is really common to be triggered,” said Thomas Pope, clinical director of Lomi Psychotherapy Clinic in Santa Rosa. “Every fall, when we’re not even having fires but people hear about fires somewhere else — or smell something, or maybe it’s the slant of light — there are many things that can trigger a trauma response. And it can go on for a lifetime.”
Pope said Lomi clients have acknowledged getting the jitters from particular sounds, or scenes in movies, or newscasts, or even “a certain dryness” in the air.
“I knew people who couldn’t go to certain parts of town after the 2017 fires,” Pope said. “They couldn’t drive, for example, to Calistoga. And the first times going back to those areas, even a couple years later, being overwhelmed when they see the evidence of fires and burned trees.”
For Jeff Okrepkie, who lost the home he and his family were renting in Coffey Park in 2017, it’s that smell of smoke.
“Or, if it’s the beginning of August and you get a red flag warning, and there are 50-mile-an-hour winds outside, that gets me,” he said.
For the most part, Okrepkie said, he has become numbed to reports of each new fire event that erupts in the Sierra Nevada, or in Southern California — or in a Colorado neighborhood that included a Costco, Target and T.J. Maxx. But he knows others continue to struggle with the news cycle. Okrepkie tells of one member of Coffey Strong, the resilience group he founded, who wound up moving to Oregon.
“He didn’t even want to light a fire in a fireplace,” Okrepkie said.
Israel understands those emotional barriers. They are what drove her and her husband from the house they had rebuilt in Coffey Park, and from the church to which they were so connected. After the LNU Lightning Complex fires in 2020 she realized her fears weren’t going away anytime soon.
“I got to the point where it just wasn’t going to happen,” she said. “When fires were close and there was a possibility of evacuation, I would get no sleep. When the Glass fire started, my husband said, ‘I know you’re not gonna sleep. Wake me up if I need to know something.’ A barbecue next door or something, that wasn’t an issue. But a fire on the news, that’s pending disaster.”
Which is why, Pope said, the Lomi clinic therapists often work with clients on fire-related emotional issues even when the flames are far away. Brushes with large-scale natural disasters can compromise a person’s ability to evaluate risk and safety, even if that person doesn’t have a full-blown PTSD diagnosis.