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For wildfire survivors, mental health can be a struggle

Klyda Flanders held a stuffed toy monkey to her chest with one hand as she lay on a cot in an evacuation shelter in Gridley, near the town of Paradise. Her other hand was held by a Red Cross volunteer, Michelle Maki, who knelt by Flanders’ bed.

Maki nodded as Flanders talked about fleeing her home in Paradise and the uncertainty of not knowing what lies ahead now that her old life is in ash.

“You cannot imagine what it’s like, and I’m one of the lucky ones,” said Flanders.

Flanders, 68, is one of the thousands of Paradise residents who were forced to evacuate due to the Camp Fire, the deadliest wildfire in California’s history. The fire killed 86 people and destroyed 13,972 homes, according to Cal Fire. For the survivors, recovering means more than replacing physical items. Many face a long path toward restoring peace of mind, and for some, overcoming mental trauma and illness that can take years to heal.

“Mental health symptoms were more prevalent in people who evacuated and were more likely to be in a life-threatening situation,” said Irva Hertz-Picciotto, director of environmental health sciences at UC Davis who has studied the mental health effects of wildfires. “That can have long term effects of post-traumatic stress symptoms.”

A recent study by Hertz-Picciotto found 60 percent of wildfire survivors surveyed experienced increases in anxiety and stress.

Post-traumatic stress disorder, or PTSD, is often associated with army veterans and survivors of domestic violence. But PTSD can happen to anyone who experiences an extreme amount of stress that overwhelms coping skills, according to Caroline Giroux, a Sacramento-based psychiatrist who specializes in trauma.

And it can manifest itself in a variety of ways.

Giroux says the first symptoms many people exhibit are shock and dissociation. Some may also experience irritability, depression or anxiety.

“Usually what scares people the most, what is the most traumatic, is what could have happened, but what didn’t happen,” said Giroux. “That is the scenario that will keep being replayed in their minds.”

It could take six to twelve months for people to recover from the initial symptoms induced by traumatic events, according to Regardt Ferreiri, professor at the Tulane School of Social Work in New Orleans.

However, the recovery process may be delayed if PTSD symptoms aren’t immediately treated through therapy. “You might be going on autopilot for months or even years,” said Ferreiri. And then, triggered by a smell or a sound, “PTSD can kick in down the road,” bringing a flood of traumatic memories back.

Barely a week after the fire took down his home in Magalia, David Souza can’t stop thinking about how he wishes he had taken more with him as he fled. A temporary resident at the Gridley evacuation center, Souza glanced down at his flip phone, looking at a picture of the remains of his house that his neighbor was able to send him. All that is left is his garage, barely visible through the smoke.

“I feel grief, resentment, like I didn’t get more stuff that we needed. I just couldn’t,” said Souza. “I really never thought in my wildest dreams that there would be nothing left. That is a monster fire.”

Environmental scientists say disasters like the Camp Fire are happening with increasing frequency and greater intensity due to more extreme weather conditions. Hotter, longer and drier summers cause fires to spread and destroy communities faster than they ever have before.

Environmental disasters like the Camp Fire will likely continue to displace large populations. Climate change may cause 143 million people to be displaced by 2050, as concluded in a recent report by the World Bank.

In late November 2018, the Trump administration released a report produced by 13 federal agencies, that details climate change impacts, both present and in the future. The fourth National Climate Assessment highlights that high temperature extremes and heavy precipitation events are increasing, resulting in more wildfires and hurricanes.

“This is really the new reality,” said Hertz-Picciotto. She believes people must prepare and adapt.

On one of the walls in the Red Cross evacuation center in Gridley taped above a table next to the rows of green cots and piles of blankets, three hand-made signs read: “Stressed? Sad? Worried? Angry? Confused? Mental Health. Just need to talk? Come see us!”

“What we’re constantly doing is assessing resilience and their ability to cope with a situation,” said Stephen Clavere, a Red Cross mental health counsellor. “But at some point, this place is going to close. These folks are gonna need mental health services long after.”

The Red Cross shelter in Gridley has since closed so that the facility can be used for sports and after school activities. Many evacuees moved to the Silver Dollar Fairgrounds in Chico, another temporary Red Cross shelter, where they will stay until they’re able to find a more permanent home.

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