‘Uncontrollable flashbacks': Mental anguish remains six months after North Bay fires

Six months after the October wildfires, tens of thousands of North Bay residents continue to experience psychological and emotional impacts.|

Kathryn Kubota drives to Pacific Heights Drive every day and parks her gun-metal colored 2009 Yukon SUV next to where her home once stood. Sometimes at night, she parks where her driveway used to be, shines her headlights on the empty space and just sits there.

In the harsh light, Kubota looks out on the flattened Mark West Estates lot surrounded by erosion wattles, yellow emergency tape and gaunt, blackened trees frozen by fire since Oct. 9.

This is where she and her husband lived for 31 years, where they raised their four children. And where they stored every physical thing that traced her family back to 1503: photo albums, documents, letters, telegrams, handmade doilies, antique dishes, family jewelry, irreplaceable church marriage records and plain old junk.

“That's why I go back and look at it. It's why I went and looked at it every day when it was burned,” Kubota, 62, said. “It was better honestly when there was debris there, because when they cleared it there was no sign that we existed.”

After six months, Kubota is stuck - she's homesick and sad and can't escape the past. She can't sleep.

Across the North Bay, tens of thousands of other residents continue to experience the trauma caused by last October's North Bay wildfires. The psychological and emotional impact is widespread, with some experiencing various mental health symptoms more severely than others, usually depending on how closely they were impacted by the fire, according to mental health experts.

Last week, Press Democrat readers were asked to describe the emotional and psychological impact the fires have had on them in the past six months. Responding through emails, phone calls and on The Press Democrat's website, local residents spoke of “uncontrollable flashbacks” triggered by the smallest things - a siren, an alarm or an orange glow in the fog.

It's unclear how many North Bay residents are experiencing mental issues due to the fire. Local health care providers, county health officials and mental health professionals are only now beginning to assess the flow of patients seeking help for fire-related trauma.

“Nobody can wrap their head around what's happened here,” said Doreen Van Leeuwen, president elect of the Redwood Empire chapter of the California Association of Marriage and Family Therapists, or RECAMFT. “The amount of suffering that's going on here is vast and you can't wrap your head around it.”

‘A different person'

For some, the fires' impact is indescribable. Those who lost everything have trouble relating to the friends they had before the fire.

“It's like you're a different person and have nothing in common,” said Tami Bates-Hurt, who lost her mobile home at Orchard Park near Coffey Park.

Bates-Hurt recalled how her husband woke up to the smell of smoke about 2:30 a.m. The fire had already jumped Highway 101 and Kmart was on fire by that time, she said, adding that although there was no evacuation order she and her husband decided to leave.

“We picked a few of our elderly lady friends across the park and went to Finley Center with the belief we would be back in no time,” Bates-Hurt said.

An hour later, when her husband walked back to Orchard Park less than two-and-a-half miles from Finley Center, half the mobile home park, including their home, was engulfed. They lost everything, including their kitty Lucy.

“I think it's more of a struggle now than before,” Bates-Hurt wrote on The Press Democrat's Facebook page, responding to a request for people to tell their stories.

“The reality is setting in more lately for me. My struggles are harder. I'm feeling defeated, angry, tired and so much more. Things affect me differently. I feel distanced and alone...I just want to feel settled and happy again. Each day I try to be better and take it one day at a time, but it's so very hard at times. I'm afraid to reach out or get help because I have no idea even where to begin … ”

Van Leeuwen said that with more than 5,300 homes and residences lost, the number of people directly impacted by the fire is easily several times that number. She said therapists and counselors have spent long hours listening to the difficulty many are having with insurance companies, the difficulties of rebuilding, the loss of jobs, fears of contaminated soil and water supplies, and the rising cost of housing.

“In general, there's a level of anger about how long it's going to take, the fact some people are price gouging, even in terms of rebuilding,” said Van Leeuwen. “They're fatigued, battle weary, some people have tremendous resilience. Some people have terrific support systems. Some people are born optimists, and those are the lucky ones.”

Impact on the undocumented

Among the unlucky, she said, are the least fortunate, those who cannot afford to rebuild or renters who can not afford rising rents.

“The Latino and Hispanic community is really being hit hard by this,” Van Leeuwen said. “Many of them didn't own homes and were renting. Some have lost jobs as well as homes.”

She said that undocumented immigrants who were already living with the “big shadow of Homeland Security looming over them” have been reluctant to come forward to ask for mental health services.

At the Santa Rosa Community Health's new Dutton Clinic in west Santa Rosa, the most financially vulnerable patients have reported increased stress, anxiety and depression brought on by the fires, said Dr. Leigh Vall-Spinosa.

“We've seen people who lost their homes and businesses, their rents have gone up,” said Vall-Spinosa, who used to work at Santa Rosa Community Health's Vista clinic on Round Barn Circle, which was severely damaged in the fire.

“There is ongoing anxiety and worry and financial stressors that have affected a lot of our patients,” she said, adding that for some patients, the fire magnified any prior mental or physical health issues they were having.

Van Leeuwen is part of the Wildfire Mental Health Collaborative, an initiative aimed at tackling Sonoma County's long-term mental health recovery needs. For several months the collaborative, which includes local mental health professionals, local health care providers and county health officials, has been coordinating free counseling and therapeutic sessions.

Crisis counseling assistance

As part of the collaborative, county health officials recently launched FEMA-funded crisis counseling assistance and training program that provides community-based outreach, counseling and other mental health services to local wildfire survivors. The county mental health division plans to contract with community-based organizations to provide, among other things, individual, family and group crisis counseling; assessment and referral services; and public education.

The program will pay special attention to higher risk groups, including those with mental illness, people with a history of substance abuse, people with prior trauma and children, youths and parents. The services will be provided by the Council on Aging, Goodwill Industries of the Redwood Empire, Petaluma People Services Center and West County Community Services.

The program will also train local residents to become “lay crisis counselors,” said Sonoma County Supervisor Shirlee Zane. The goal, she said, is to help people regain their sense of control and identify and express their emotions so they can adjust to the disaster and manage their stress.

Zane said the county hopes to reach nearly 10,000 people through the counseling and training program.

“What we're trying to do is reach people who wouldn't ordinarily be reached,” she said.

Debbie Mason, CEO of Healthcare Foundation Northern Sonoma County, which is heading the Wildfire Mental Health Collaborative, said the effort has raised about a third of its $1 million goal.

The collaborative currently provides drop-in support groups for fire survivors Saturdays at Catholic Charities, 987 Airway Court in Santa Rosa, from 3 to 4:30 p.m. The groups are staffed by RECAMFT therapists.

The collaborative last week launched trauma-informed yoga classes Tuesdays and Saturdays at YogaOne Studio in downtown Santa Rosa. On April 21 and 22, the collaborative will hold a two-day wildfire survivor mental health training session for licensed health care professionals at the Hyatt Regency Sonoma Wine Country in Santa Rosa.

Price of ‘not doing enough'

Mental health professionals say the price of not doing enough to help people through fire-related trauma is evident each time someone decides to leave the community.

Ross BeVier and his wife Barbara, who for almost two decades operated an iris farm called My Wild Iris Rows in Rincon Valley, recently closed escrow on a home in Sequim, Washington, two-and-a-half hours northwest of Seattle. BeVier, 72, said the Tubbs fire destroyed his home, farm equipment and the many specialty irises he cultivated on the 5-acre farm located just across the way from the Rincon Valley Little League field.

He was able to save his boat and an Alaskan Camper his grandmother bought new in 1970.

Leaving Sonoma County was a difficult decision, BeVier said, but he there was no way he could find an affordable place to live in Sonoma County. He and his wife purchased a house in mid-February and recently finished moving. BeVier spent the first night in his new home last week.

Sonoma County has changed for him, he said. In Washington, he's found peace of mind.

“When it gets windy, it sends chills up my spine,” he said. “I'm so happy to be up here. I'm a fisherman and I'm a camper. I'm close to all the camping that I can do for the rest of my life.”

Kubota remains in Santa Rosa. She vividly recalls how a “waterfall of embers” cascaded down the burning hillside east of her neighborhood, how those embers flowed like a river down her street and how fire took every trace of her family.

On Wednesday, Kubota will finally talk to a therapist about what she's going through.

“When you look at this lot, you don't know that six people lived here,” Kubota said during one of her visits last week. “I think I need some new tools.”

Kubota is haunted by the loss of her past. And she's tormented by the uncertainties of the future. She and her husband, Marshall, have an architect and builder. But they don't know where they are on the “builder's list.”

She's worried she and her husband won't be able to afford to rebuild; she knows she won't get what she had, even though the couple was well-insured. She wonders if the new house will feel like home.

She's not a crier, but sometimes she sits in her SUV and weeps.

You can reach Staff Writer Martin Espinoza at 707-521-5213 or martin.espinoza@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @renofish.

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