Psychological scars from October wildfires cut deep in Sonoma County
On particularly bad days, Sherinne Wilson's thoughts go back to that moment just before she realized how bad the fires were.
She's standing in front of a second-floor closet in her home on Pine Meadow Place near Coffey Park, trying to decide which box of photos and family videotapes to take and which to leave behind.
She thinks she has time.
Wilson, 52, looks out a window next to the closet - fiery embers the size of her hand are floating on a strange draft of air in her yard, barely moving, surreal, an ominous foreshadowing of what's coming. Mesmerized for a moment, she snaps out of it and leaves the house without grabbing a single thing.
“When I have ‘one of those days,' that's what I go back to,” she said. “I could have taken one box, but I didn't.
“Now, with the littlest, smallest amount of smoke my heart races - I'm sure I'm not the only one,” said Wilson, whose house was among the 1,200 homes in Santa Rosa's Coffey Park neighborhood destroyed by the Tubbs fire in October.
“It causes a lot of anxiety, and with the fire season you just can't really get away from it,” she said. “I don't think it's something that will ever go away.”
Nearly 10 months since the North Bay was ravaged by historic wildfires, fire survivors, their friends, family and neighbors are still grappling with disaster-related trauma, anxiety and stress that just doesn't seem to go away.
For many local residents not directly affected by the fires, the devastating event is receding into memory. But for those who lost a loved one or a home, they find themselves constantly “triggered” or “activated” by the firestorm's nagging legacy - insurance woes, construction costs, empty lots, fire-scarred neighborhoods, repeated red flag warnings and incessant California wildfires. The deadly blaze in Redding and new fires this weekend in Mendocino, Lake and Napa counties were grim reminders of that heavy toll.
Such reactions are not uncommon, according to local and national mental health experts familiar with disaster-related trauma. The good news, they say, is that psychological and emotional recovery can be achieved. The bad news: It is going to take a long time, as unprecedented destruction brings unprecedented trauma.
Wilson, a supervisor with Santa Rosa's Recreation and Parks Department, said she, her husband and everyone else who lost everything to the fires continue to struggle with the day-to-day challenges of rebuilding. With so many thousands of homes lost, Wilson said she finds support among those directly affected by the fire.
In fact, the only time she has talked to a mental health professional was a few days after the firestorm, for a few minutes as part of the city's immediate response to staff impacted by the fire. Wilson recalls being asked how she was feeling, a question she had trouble answering because she was in absolute shock.
The process of rebuilding mental health in the North Bay is no less important than the timely reconstruction of fire-damaged neighborhoods, and the two go hand-in-hand, said Sonoma County Supervisor Shirlee Zane.
Even as the city and county work to streamline reconstruction by fast-tracking construction permits and waiving certain fees, mental health experts are trying to map out countywide recovery efforts that include free therapy sessions, specialized disaster trauma training for counselors and therapists, novel therapies that reconnect wildfire survivors with nature, and even a self-help app aimed at assisting people with post-disaster stress and trauma.
“We're not just rebuilding brick and mortar, we're rebuilding people's lives and that is a long process,” Zane said. “Increasingly, we're seeing two worlds in the county: The world between those who experienced the fire and those that didn't.”
Doreen Van Leeuwen, a local marriage and family therapist, agrees. While most county residents are moving on with their lives, those who lost everything are reminded of the fires every day - because everything in their lives changed, said Van Leeuwen, president-elect of the Redwood Empire chapter of the California Association of Marriage and Family Therapists.
“It's two populations that are really at different places,” Van Leeuwen said. “People need to know they are not wrong for feeling what they're feeling. ... Of course you're upset, your whole life has been ripped from you. This is a real long journey. There is support available.”
Dr. Carol North, professor of psychiatry at the University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center, has spent a significant portion of her career studying the mental health outcomes of disaster survivors. A psychiatric epidemiologist, her work with survivors of the 1995 Oklahoma City bombing was instrumental in helping some mental health professionals assist survivors of the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.