People displaced by Valley fire in painful limbo

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For people who still don’t know whether their homes were consumed by the Valley fire, waiting day after day for word has become a painful purgatory, where stress and anxiety reign.

A few have been lucky enough to actually enter the disaster zone and see for themselves whether their homes were spared or destroyed. Others have received a text photo of their houses from a neighbor or friend in law enforcement, a firefighter, a PG&E worker.

For them, the waiting is over; the news, good or bad, is welcomed.

“It’s the unknowing, the unknowing,” said Cobb resident Christine Bartholomew, who has received no word about her home.

Bartholomew, who is living in a tent with her family at the evacuation center in Calistoga, fled her Cobb home on High Road at Reed Road, just above Station 62 of the South Lake County Fire Protection District on Highway 175. She was among the first to arrive at the evacuation center at the Napa County Fairgrounds.

“Nobody has been up in that area that can tell me or take pictures. … I don’t give up hope and faith,” she said, crying.

Six days after the Valley fire tore through much of south Lake County, potentially hundreds of residents continue to grapple with a brutal uncertainty that has left them stuck between the initial fiery disaster and the grief or relief that awaits them. About 900 people are staying at the Calistoga evacuation center, with a few dozen more in Kelseyville. Countless others staying in hotels or with friends or family undoubtedly are grappling with the same feelings.

“There’s an emotional toll to be in a constant state of worrying,” said Tina Casola, a licensed marriage and family therapist from San Diego who is volunteering for the American Red Cross at the Calistoga evacuation center.

Casola is among several mental health professionals at the evacuation center who are helping fire victims deal with the disaster. She said those who know their homes are gone are likely dealing with grief and the immediate realization that they are now homeless, while some whose homes were spared are confronted by waves of guilt.

But those who don’t know are in “limbo,” she said. These people are experiencing a form of normalized stress and anxiety similar to the “fight or flight” reaction that fire victims experienced when they fled for their lives.

“It’s like stewing; the dial is still turned on,” she said.

Laura Strom, president of the California Association of Marriage and Family Therapists, echoed Casola’s concern for fire victims dealing with uncertainty.

Strom said that state of limbo is characterized by a great deal of stress that can lead to heightened anxiety, building into a “crescendo” of emotion and feeling. People handle such stress in different ways, depending on their coping mechanisms, she said.

“Someone who has had a lot of trauma generally may find that the situation brings up past traumatic cues or triggers. It could bring about nightmares or flashbacks,” she said. “For a person who has had post-traumatic stress in the past, it could be significant, especially if it was around fire.”

At the Calistoga evacuation center, Anderson Springs resident Burt Hutton, 50, said that before he found out his home had been spared he went through a period of “not knowing” that was overwhelming. A neighbor who is a law enforcement officer sent him a picture of his undamaged home.

“It was a gut-wrenching feeling that I had in my stomach that I can only compare to bungee jumping,” he said. “The adrenaline, the anticipation … it literally took days to just come down from that.”

Hutton said he’s now struck by a strong sense of “survivor’s guilt.”

Irene Henley, a Hidden Valley Lake resident who also is staying at the Calistoga evacuation center in a tent with her family, said she still doesn’t know whether she has a home. She said she feels tremendous sadness and, at times, desperation.

She said she only found out Wednesday that she can sign up to be escorted into the disaster.

“It’s hard. It’s hard,” she said, speaking in Spanish. “I’d like to just go in there anyway, but I hear they’re arresting people.”

On Sunday, Cal Fire officials told recent evacuation center arrivals that it would be about two days before people were allowed to return to their communities. Now there is no time frame.

That is a concern for mental health professionals.

Strom said she and other members of the Redwood Empire chapter of the California Association of Marriage and Family Therapists are conducting a drop-in counseling service from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Saturday at the Mark West Lodge event center. A large group of counselors will be available for those affected by the disaster.

“Will have information about how to handle their trauma, how to help them feel better,” she said.

She said the group has also put together a roster of 40 chapter members who have volunteered to do three to five free sessions of counseling with anyone affected by the fire.

To obtain additional information about the drop-in counseling event or free counseling sessions, visit or For complete wildfire coverage go to:

You can reach Staff Writer Martin Espinoza at 521-5213 or On Twitter @renofish.

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