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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.”

A man holds the flag and a sign reading "BOCO STRONG! We will rise again!!!"  during a tour of the Marshall Fire in Louisville, Colo.,  on Sunday, Jan. 2, 2022. Investigators are still trying to determine what sparked a massive fire in a suburban area near Denver that burned neighborhoods to the ground and destroyed nearly 1,000 homes and other buildings.   (Matthew Jonas /The Denver Post via AP)
A man holds the flag and a sign reading "BOCO STRONG! We will rise again!!!" during a tour of the Marshall Fire in Louisville, Colo., on Sunday, Jan. 2, 2022. Investigators are still trying to determine what sparked a massive fire in a suburban area near Denver that burned neighborhoods to the ground and destroyed nearly 1,000 homes and other buildings. (Matthew Jonas /The Denver Post via AP)

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.

Jeff Okrepkie, who founded Coffey Strong after the 2017 Tubbs fire, empathizes with people having to deal with the aftermath of losing their homes to wildfires. While he says he has become numbed to hearing about big fire after big fire, high winds and the smell of smoke get to him. (Christopher Chung/ The Press Democrat)
Jeff Okrepkie, who founded Coffey Strong after the 2017 Tubbs fire, empathizes with people having to deal with the aftermath of losing their homes to wildfires. While he says he has become numbed to hearing about big fire after big fire, high winds and the smell of smoke get to him. (Christopher Chung/ The Press Democrat)

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.

“If you’re constantly reminded that danger can happen, if you stay on alert, we can have a trauma response when we don’t need it. That’s common in trauma recovery. People might be hyper-vigilant about things they shouldn’t necessarily be vigilant about, and not vigilant about some things they should.” Thomas Pope

In effect, the nervous system can remain in trauma response, Pope said, when it should be resetting to what he called a “calm and rest system.”

“If you’re constantly reminded that danger can happen, if you stay on alert, we can have a trauma response when we don’t need it,” he explained. “That’s common in trauma recovery. People might be hyper-vigilant about things they shouldn’t necessarily be vigilant about, and not vigilant about some things they should.”

Triggers can include videos of houses burning on the far side of the Rocky Mountains.

“Just hearing about a fire that burns a thousand homes in Colorado is going to bring that Tubbs fire trauma back to the surface really fast,” Pope said. “I think it did for many people in the last week. Then we get articles that say it can happen here, and it’s like, ‘Oh, goodness.’”

But can it happen here? Some factors surrounding the Marshall fire don’t bear a lot of resemblance to the North Bay, said Scott Stephens, a UC Berkeley professor who specializes in fire science and ecology.

“The vegetation it burned was certainly different,” Stephens said. “It was grassland, steppe — a much drier habitat than we have here.”

But there were ominous similarities, too. Most obvious were the nearly unimaginable winds that drove the fire in Colorado.

The National Weather Service clocked one gust there at 110 mph on Dec. 30 — on the threshold between a Category 2 and Category 3 hurricane. It’s easy to imagine something like that wrenching Sonoma County residents back to bad memories of their own. During the Kincade fire, for example, gusts topped out at 96 mph.

Another echo: The Marshall fire started on undeveloped land, but those hellish winds quickly pushed it into streets of tidy houses laid out on a grid in the town of Superior. Residents there must have felt what Coffey Park neighbors recalled in 2017 — a sense of “this can’t be happening here.” It wasn’t the wildland-urban interface in flames. It was a city.

The other element of the Colorado fire that could have implications for Northern California is the erosion of what we had come to think of as “fire season.” These used to be summer and early-fall events. But the Tubbs, Nuns and Kincade fires all ignited in October. Kincade wasn’t fully contained until Nov. 6.

FILE - Smoke rises in a neighborhood of Boulder County that was destroyed by a wildfire as seen from a Colorado National Guard helicopter during a flyover by Gov. Jared Polis on Dec. 31, 2021. In Colorado and other states hit by natural disasters this year, the pandemic has injected extra uncertainty and created more obstacles for families trying to rebuild. (Hart Van Denburg/Colorado Public Radio via AP, Pool, Fil)
FILE - Smoke rises in a neighborhood of Boulder County that was destroyed by a wildfire as seen from a Colorado National Guard helicopter during a flyover by Gov. Jared Polis on Dec. 31, 2021. In Colorado and other states hit by natural disasters this year, the pandemic has injected extra uncertainty and created more obstacles for families trying to rebuild. (Hart Van Denburg/Colorado Public Radio via AP, Pool, Fil)

“One thing climate change tells us is we should see more increases in variability,” said Stephens, who grew up in Napa. “It wasn’t that long ago you just didn’t get fires to any real extent in what you’d call the edges of the winter period. I mean, it has happened in Southern California for decades because of Santa Ana (offshore wind) conditions. But it is transitioning in Northern California. And in Colorado. That was really a profound happening in late December.”

The long-term response has been grief and fear, but also a higher level of preparedness.

Okrepkie, in a sense, has found his own form of therapy. He and other members of Coffey Strong, the neighborhood relief and recovery group, have delivered comfort and advice to survivors of other fires, driving to Redding after the Carr fire and to Paradise after the Camp fire, and conducting Zoom meetings with people in the Santa Cruz area after the CZU Lightning Complex in 2020.

And with the rubble still smoldering in Colorado last week, he contacted survivors there.

“I was talking to someone (Tuesday) on Instagram, a friend of a friend who had lost his house,” Okrepkie said. “He told me, ‘I really appreciate you reaching out. Not a lot of people know the feeling.’”

Okrepkie, who is hoping to expand his advocacy with a run for a Santa Rosa City Council seat, agrees that only a fellow survivor can truly understand what is needed most in the aftermath of a disaster.

“There’s always people who want to help, and there’s nothing wrong with that,” he said. “But I remember receiving this outpouring of support in 2017 and thinking, ‘OK, but I don’t have any socks. I need to go to Walmart and get some underwear.’”

Okrepkie has advised people on everything from insurance claims to FEMA cleanup. Even while bringing succor to the fire-afflicted, though, he sometimes has to deal with his own painful memories.

“One of the hardest things to hit me was when I went up to Redding and Paradise,” Okrepkie recalled. “We were driving into town, and before even seeing any fire damage, what I’ll always remember is all the signs saying, ‘Thank you, first responders.’ Like up on overpasses. Those made me sick to my stomach. Because you know exactly why those are there.”

You can reach Phil Barber at 707-521-5263 or phil.barber@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @Skinny_Post.

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