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