Some who managed to escape the devastating Camp fire struggle with ‘survivor’s guilt’
When Brook and Matt MacKay are asked how they fared in the Camp fire, they are sometimes unsure how to answer. Our house is still standing, they usually say. But we lost our home.
The husband and wife met as kids in Paradise and reconnected at Brigham Young University in Utah. They so believed in their hometown’s inherent specialness that they moved back from Washington state eight years ago with their four children.
Now Paradise is gone. But their house, by some miracle, was spared. The Camp fire took everything else around it: all their neighbors’ homes, the corner store where they’d take their kids for candy, even the tree house in their backyard. It got that close.
They are acutely aware of their good fortune. But they also are suffering. Their home is inaccessible until who-knows-when. Their community of 17,000 has scattered to Sacramento, to Redding, to Idaho. Several people died in the blaze on the hill just behind their property. They are shouldering the grief of so many family members who suddenly have nothing.
“We technically have a home, yes. But I still feel like I’ve lost it,” said Brook MacKay as she sat with her family in the 400-square-foot RV they bought after the fire. “I feel guilty for not being happier that it’s still standing. But what use is a home in a destroyed community?”
As the national spotlight has turned to Butte County and its unfathomable plight, most attention and supportive resources have been funneled to those now without homes. Yet the relative few whose houses were not reduced to ash are confronting their own trauma. When they survey the devastation that surrounds them, it is easy to dismiss it. It is difficult to discuss their struggles openly without feeling insensitive.
Being in such a position can be incredibly isolating, said Mary Kearns, a chaplain and grief counselor in Chico. She’s met with many people dealing with these complicated emotions — which she considers to be a form of what mental health professionals call “survivor’s guilt” — in the past two weeks since the Camp fire took at least 85 lives and almost 19,000 structures.
Kearns herself is grappling with this guilt.
“We feel that because they haven’t lost their homes, that we don’t have a right to be sad,” said Kearns, who has been counseling evacuees. “But even if you weren’t trapped in the fire or burned out by it, you have a tremendous emotional investment in your friends, your community, your schools. Of course you’re going to be impacted.”
Post-disaster guilt manifests in different ways. For the MacKays, it has meant turning down gift cards handed to them at disaster relief events. It has meant going to an open house for a rental in Chico, only to find 15 other families in line who actually lost everything, and deciding to look for places farther away from Paradise. It wouldn’t be fair for us to take this, they think. It has meant speaking of their grief only among themselves and a few others in similar situations.
At times, 18-year-old Jared MacKay has felt singled out for his relative good fortune. “We’re all homeless now — except you,” one friend said recently, pointing to Jared. Another friend called him out for accepting free clothes at Goodwill, even though he, too, has been washing the same pairs of shirts and pants every couple days.
“I feel like I lost almost as much as they have,” said Jared, a Paradise High School senior. “But because I still have a house, there’s a barrier. I can’t connect with them. I feel alone.”
Just south of Paradise in Oroville, Megan Brown is sorting through her own guilt. In 2017, the Cherokee fire destroyed two family homes and all of the corrals on her 3,500-acre cattle ranch — $3 million worth of damage. Her property, passed down for generations, was unscathed this time. Yet she has woken up sick with anxiety every morning since the fire. She feels guilty that she’s in her warm bed while so many friends are displaced, especially because she knows how they feel. She suspects she is still suffering from symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder caused by barely making it out of last year’s blaze.
“I self-correct when I start feeling down,” said Brown, 37. “There are others who are suffering more.”
Brown said she knows she should probably speak to a counselor. But right now she doesn’t want to take resources away from those who lost homes or loved ones.
To cope with these feelings, Brown has thrown herself into relief efforts. She brought several tons of hay and other farming supplies to the animal shelter in Gridley. She’s taking in old family friends from Paradise.
An overwhelming desire to rush in and help is a common response among people dealing with survivor’s guilt, said Kearns, the grief counselor. Those who are vicariously traumatized look around and see that their world doesn’t feel safe anymore. They want to help fix this broken world for their loved ones, of course. But they, too, want to feel safe again.
The best way to confront this trauma is to slow down, share your story, and make yourself available to those who want to share theirs, Kearns said. It is the only way to alleviate sorrow.
“It’s important to validate and normalize our reaction to this disaster so that we can then, in turn, be strong enough to help those who did lose everything,” she said.
For Jon and Susie Warren, Paradise residents and friends of the MacKays, this is easier said than done. Their home was also spared, but Jon’s certified public accountant’s office was destroyed.
They are unsure the business will survive — there is no clientele left in Paradise. They are still paying a mortgage on a house they may never return to. They worry about the long-term effects this will have on their five kids. Even still, they do not feel like they can fully mourn their losses.
“You just think, why me? Why was my home spared when everyone else’s within a half-mile radius was gone?” said Susie Warren, who grew up in the house. “Sometimes I wish mine was gone, too, so it would be easier to relate to people. And then I feel guilty for even thinking that.”
There is an image that the Warrens cannot shake. On the first Sunday after the fire, their church congregation in Chico was divided into two groups for counseling purposes: those who lost their homes and those who didn’t.
The Warrens and the MacKays sat with a handful of others — the lucky ones — in a small room.
The rest filled the sanctuary.
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