As flames fade, wine country grapples with emotional scars of devastating fires
In the days since fires ravaged towns here, people have pulled together. Strangers at coffee shops share their trauma, talking of homes destroyed and loved ones lost.
Almost everyone seems to know a neighbor who knocked on a door or lifted someone into a car, and saved a life.
The phrase “The love in the air is thicker than the smoke” is on signs in shop windows, in Facebook posts and on people’s lips.
The community solidarity has buoyed people’s spirits, experts say. But when it fades, the trauma will stay.
“That’s when the cracks start to show,” said Jennifer MacLeamy, a therapist in Petaluma, which neighbors Santa Rosa, the city hardest hit by the fires. “People’s lives are still devastated.”
The wildfires that ripped through the region killed more than 40 people and displaced tens of thousands from their homes. Those who evacuated had only minutes to do so, leaving them with few, if any, possessions.
Other natural disasters, including previous wildfires in California, have left scars in the minds of survivors, studies have shown. Already, therapists in the Bay Area report hearing from patients who say they’re having trouble sleeping or feel scared when they hear heavy winds or sirens.
Health workers say North Bay residents require psychological attention to head off serious problems. Those mental health needs, however, are often neglected after disasters as communities focus on repairing the damage that can be seen.
Anxiety, flashbacks and tantrums
Talking to therapists at the Petaluma Health Center recently, a woman described her 4-year-old son as extra needy and energetic since they evacuated their home.
“I told my mom he’s a Stage 5 clinger right now,” the woman told MacLeamy, who is the center’s director of behavioral health.
Children might have separation anxiety, be unusually irritable or complain of headaches or stomachaches after traumatic events, MacLeamy said. Some might regress and begin sucking their thumbs, throwing tantrums and wetting the bed even though they had grown out of those behaviors.
MacLeamy created a Parenting Through Crisis class last week after co-workers told her they were struggling to talk to their children about the fire. She said the cashier at the grocery store started crying when MacLeamy asked how she was doing.
“People are just barely stitched together,” she said.
Julayne Smithson, 55, was working as a nurse at Kaiser Santa Rosa hospital while her mobile home burned across the street. She had purchased the home and moved to Santa Rosa just three weeks before.
Smithson and her Chihuahua, Tiki, found a place to live temporarily, but are still searching for permanent housing.
“It’s just amazing how stressful this all is. You don’t realize it, you don’t realize you’re in stress, but you’re just exhausted,” said Smithson, 55.
“We’re really anticipating the reality of this to hit people in the next couple of weeks — the reality of what they lost,” said Maryellen Curran, who oversees behavioral health services for the Santa Rosa Community Health centers.
PTSD after natural disasters
The feelings could develop into post-traumatic stress disorder if they continue for more than a month and interfere with relationships or work, experts say.
A study of Californians evacuated from their homes during the 2003 wildfires showed that 33% were depressed and 24% were experiencing PTSD three months later. People whose property was damaged and who were injured or had a loved one injured were the most likely to be affected.
Lawrence Palinkas, USC professor of social policy and health, said people trained in mental health should be triaging survivors of the fires and referring those who are particularly stressed or not coping well into treatment.
Some experts say there’s a 30-day window after a traumatic event, a “golden month,” in which even small interventions can make a difference.
“It should be happening right now,” Palinkas said. “Simply because you’ve provided food and shelter, it doesn’t mean the job is completed.”
Sonoma County health workers have been administering psychological first aid to evacuated people for days, county health department spokesman Scott Alonso said.
“As long as those shelters are open and there’s a need, our folks will be out there,” Alonso said.
Some questioned whether the region has the capacity to provide more mental health care. The healthcare system took a major hit in the fires, with hospitals and clinics damaged and hundreds of medical professionals losing their homes.
When community solidarity fades
Even for those who didn’t lose homes or loved ones, seeing a hometown dotted with trucks from the Federal Emergency Management Agency and people wearing masks can be painful. The air still smells of smoke.
Cyndi Evans, 49, couldn’t sleep through the night for days last week because the winds were changing so quickly that a new neighborhood could be at risk within minutes.
“I felt very vulnerable, very raw,” said Evans, who lives south of downtown Santa Rosa.
Evans said she’s grateful her home was spared and her family is safe. She began volunteering at a shelter last week.
“I still feel weepy for our town,” she said. “This isn’t over yet.”
Many people, some of whom are experiencing survivor’s guilt, welcomed those displaced into their homes. Shelters in the region reported having too many volunteers and donations.
An inmate firefighter monitors flames as a house burns in the Napa wine region.(Josh Edelson / AFP/Getty Images)
Flames ravage a home in the Napa wine region in California.(Josh Edelson / AFP/Getty Images)
A firefighter walks near a pool as a neighboring home burns in the Napa wine region.(Josh Edelson / AFP/Getty Images)
Firefighters douse flames as a home burns in the Napa wine region, as multiple wind-driven fires whip through the region.(Josh Edelson / AFP/Getty Images)
A Cazadero firefighter struggles to protect a home from catching fire in Coffey Park in Santa Rosa, Calif.(Kent Porter / The Press Democrat)
Louis Reavis views the burned remains of his classic Oldsmobile at his home in Napa.(Josh Edelson / AFP/Getty Images)
A tent structure built for the 2017 Safeway Open burns in Napa on Monday.(Josh Edelson / AFP/Getty Images)
The Estancia Apartment Homes on Old Redwood Hwy. were completely destroyed in Santa Rosa.(Brian van der Brug / Los Angeles Times)
A resident rushes to save his home as a wildfire moves through Glen Ellen, Calif. Tens of thousands of acres and dozens of homes and businesses have burned in wildfires in Napa and Sonoma counties.(Justin Sullivan / Getty Images)
A Fountaingrove Village man surveys the rubble of his home in Santa Rosa.(Brian van der Brug / Los Angeles Times)
Downed power poles and lines block a street in Hidden Valley.(Brian van der Brug / Los Angeles Times )
A fcar burns in the driveway of a destroyed home in Fountaingrove Village.(Brian van der Brug / Los Angeles Times)
A wheelchair left abandoned at the evacuated Villa Capri assisted living facility on Fountaingrove Parkway in Santa Rosa.(Brian van der Brug / Los Angeles Times )
A resident rushes to save his home as fire moves through the area in Glen Ellen, California.(Justin Sullivan / Getty Images)
A San Jose firefighter keep flames down at a home in Hidden Valley.(Brian van der Brug / Los Angeles Times)
A Fountaingrove Village couple takes in the ruins of their home after fire ripped through the neighborhood.(Brian van der Brug / Los Angeles Times)
A home destroyed in the fast moving wildfire that ripped through Glen Ellen.(Marcus Yam / Los Angeles Times)
A swimming pool reflects the damage caused by the wildfires that moved through neighborhoods near Glen Ellen.(Marcus Yam / Los Angeles Times)
Benicia Police Officer Alejandro Maravilla, left, offers resident Gwen Adkins, 84, a soda while patrolling in the Coffey Park neighborhood of Santa Rosa.(Brian van der Brug / Los Angeles Times)
An aerial view of Journey End’s Mobile home park, along the 101 freeway, destroyed by wildfire in Santa Rosa.(Los Angeles Times )
Spencer Blackwell, left, and Danielle Tate find Tate’s father’s gun collection, melted and burned, inside a gun safe at her father’s home in the Coffey Park neighborhood of Santa Rosa.(Brian van der Brug / Los Angeles Times )
An American flag is draped on a burned pickup truck on Camino del Prado in the Coffey Park neighborhood in Santa Rosa.(Brian van der Brug / Los Angeles Times )
Scorched wine barrels at the Paradise Ridge Winery in Santa Rosa after the wildfire burned through.(Marcus Yam / Los Angeles Times)
Fire lights up the night sky framed by a vineyard near Kenwood.(Marcus Yam / Los Angeles Times)
Chloe Hoskins, 7, wearing a bandanna to protect herself from the smoke and ash, checks on a neighbor’s burned-out property with her father in the Coffey Park neighborhood in Santa Rosa.(Los Angeles Times )
Oakland police officers knock on doors as residents of the Rancho de Calistoga mobile home park are told to evacuate in Calistoga.(Brian van der Brug / Los Angeles Times)
An aerial view of the Coffey Park neighborhood detroyed by wildfire in Santa Rosa.(Marcus Yam / Los Angeles Times )
Contra Costa paramedics help Bill Parras, 96, evacuate his home in Calistoga.(Brian van der Brug / Los Angeles Times )
CHP officers study neighborhood maps before going door to door to tell Sonoma residents to voluntarily evacuate ahead of the wildfire.
(Marcus Yam / Los Angeles Times)
A home perched on top of a hill sits in the foreground of a fire moving up on Shiloh Ridge near Santa Rosa.(Marcus Yam / Los Angeles Times )
Scorched grapes and vines along the edge of Storybook Mountain Vineyards in Calistoga.(Brian van der Brug / Los Angeles Times)
John and Jan Pascoe survived the firestorm by running out of their home and into their neighbors’ swimming pool in Santa Rosa.(Brian van der Brug / Los Angeles Times)
Hundreds of burned wine bottles at the destroyed Helena View Johnston Vineyards near Calistoga.(Brian van der Brug / Los Angeles Times)
A Contra Costa County firefighter breaks a wall with an ax as his crew battles flames inside a home along Highway 29 north of Calistoga on Oct. 12.(Marcus Yam / Los Angeles Times)
Atascadero Firefighters try to control flames burning inside a home along Highway 29 in Calistoga on Oct. 12.(Marcus Yam / Los Angeles Times)
Contra Costa firefighters work to put out flames burning inside a home along Highway 29 north of Calistoga on Oct. 12.(Marcus Yam / Los Angeles Times)
Search teams sift through the debris of mobile homes at the Journey’s End Mobile Home Park in Santa Rosa.(Marcus Yam / Los Angeles Times )
A worker pulls out a firearm from the burned wreckage as search team members look through the debris at the Journey’s End Mobile Home Park in Santa Rosa.(Marcus Yam / Los Angeles Times)
Search team members sift through debris at the Journey’s End Mobile Home Park in Santa Rosa.(Marcus Yam / Los Angeles Times)
Santa Rosa Mayor Chris Coursey surveys the damage to the Coffey Park neighborhood.(Marcus Yam / Los Angeles Times )
Melted metal is seen on a car in the shadow of a destroyed home in Napa.(Genaro Molina / Los Angeles Times)
Lola Cornish, 50, and her daughter Kat Corazza, 18, look over recovered family jewels that survived the fire at Cornish’s grandfather’s home in Napa.(Genaro Molina / Los Angeles Times)
Some residents were allowed to return to their properties Friday in a neighborhood in Napa that was ravaged by the Atlas fire.(Genaro Molina / Los Angeles Times)
A helicopter prepares to drop water on a fire that threatens the Oakmont community along Highway 12 in Santa Rosa.(Genaro Molina / Los Angeles Times)
A helicopter drops water on a fire that threatens the Ledson Winery and Historic Castle Vineyards in Kenwood on Friday.(Genaro Molina / Los Angeles Times)
Manuel Mendoza sorts through donated clothing at the Bridge Church in Santa Rosa on Sunday.(Genaro Molina / Los Angeles Times)
Jean Schettler hugs Father Moses Brown after Mass at St. Rose Church on Sunday. Schettler’s daughter, son-in-law and grandchildren, after losing their house in the fires, have moved into the Santa Rosa home of Jean and Jim Schettler.(Genaro Molina / Los Angeles Times)
Gianna Gathman, 18, hugs her grandfather Jim Schettler during Mass at St. Rose Church in Santa Rosa on Sunday. Gathman’s family lost their home in the Fountaingrove neighborhood to the fire. They are now living with the Schettlers.(Genaro Molina / Los Angeles Times)
Kimberly Flinn holds onto the only item that wasn’t lost in a fire that destroyed her home in the Mark West Springs area in Santa Rosa. Flynn recovered a ceramic white butterfly that she had made in memory of a boy she used to babysit and was killed in a hit and run accident.(Genaro Molina / Los Angeles Times)
Gerry Miller, 81, tells San Francisco Police Department Officer Gary Loo how grateful she is to find her home still standing. Residents were allowed to return to their homes in the Mark West Springs area in Santa Rosa Sunday night.(Genaro Molina / Los Angeles Times)
Denise Finitz, 61, thanks Torrance Fire Department firefighters Keith Picket, right, and Capt. Mike Salcido on Oct. 16 after they helped her find her mother’s wedding ring in the ashes of her home, destroyed by wildfires on Carriage Lane in Wikiup.(Genaro Molina / Los Angeles Times)
A search and rescue crew member gives a cadaver dog some water during the hunt for a possible fire victim in the Mark West Springs area of Santa Rosa on Oct. 15.(Genaro Molina / Los Angeles Times)
Burned cars like this vintage Volkswagen litter the landscape in Coffey Park. The neighborhood was completely destroyed by the Tubbs fire 11 days ago, with many residents fleeing in haste as their homes were enveloped in flames.(Luis Sinco / Los Angeles Times)
A giraffe framed in the smoke filled air at the Safari West preserve.(Genaro Molina / Los Angeles Times)
A Watusi bull looks out through the haze of the recent Tubbs fire at the Safari West preserve.(Genaro Molina / Los Angeles Times)
Peter Lang, 77, owner of the Safari West preserve, stands between a pair of white rhinos against a backdrop of charred hillside in Santa Rosa.(Genaro Molina / Los Angeles Times)
Mark Sharp, a resident of Coffey Park, sifts through the remains of his charred home in search of his wife’s wedding band.(Luis Sinco / Los Angeles Times)
Flowers were left on the mailbox of Roy Howard Bowman, 87, and his wife, Irma Elsie Bowman, 88 who died at their Fisher Lake Drive home from the Redwood Valley fire.(Genaro Molina / Los Angeles Times)
Dee Pallesen, left, and her daughter Emily Learn console each as they look over Pallesen’s home, destroyed by the Redwood Valley fire.(Genaro Molina / Los Angeles Times)
Jason Miller plants an American flag on the charred remains of his house as residents of Coffey Park return home.(Luis Sinco / Los Angeles Times)
Burned vehicles litter the landscape in Coffey Park. The neighborhood was completely destroyed by the Tubbs fire 11 days ago, with many residents fleeing in haste as their homes were enveloped in flames.(Luis Sinco / Los Angeles Times)
A pickup truck rests beside a row of charred trees in the Coffey Park neighborhood of Santa Rosa.(Luis Sinco / Los Angeles Times)
The sense of unity and support that swells after a crisis is one of the best ways to ward off PTSD and depression, but it often wanes when rebuilding starts, Palinkas said.
Some groups will feel slighted because they won’t get as many resources as others, he said. Social networks also fray after disasters because loved ones have died, people scatter to find new housing, and survivors tend to withdraw because they feel isolated, he said.
“The disruption of the social fabric of the community is as much a victim of a disaster like this as the disruption of individual health and well-being,” Palinkas said.
Andrea Williams-Epting, 30, started a Facebook group to share mental health resources for people affected by the fire. She said she’s heard people in Guerneville — about 20 miles west of Santa Rosa and close to a redwood park — say they’ve become sensitive to certain triggers: the sound of the wind, helicopters, people smoking or candles.
“Even just out here in Guerneville, people are on edge because you strike a match and the redwoods can just go up in flames,” she said. “It’s going to take a while for people to heal.”
Mental health resources
- The National Child Traumatic Stress Network has a guide to help patients talk to their children about wildfires, as well as tips based on the kids’ age — pre-school age children, school-age children or adolescents.
- For adults and children, there are some relaxation tips.
- The Redwood Empire Chapter of the California Assn. of Marriage and Family Therapists compiled a list of licensed therapists offering free counseling to people affected by the fires.
- The federal Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration runs a disaster distress hotline at (800) 985-5990.
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