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Health Outreach Workers Provide Emotional Support for Fire Survivors

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(Photo: Dulzura resident Dana Mottola visits with County Mental Health outreach workers Yvonne Purdy-Luxton and Jennifer Strauss. Kenny Goldberg/KPBS )

For some people, rebuilding their lives after last October's wildfires has been tough. A group of outreach workers from San Diego County Mental Health Services is trying to help survivors get through the process. KPBS Health Reporter Kenny Goldberg has the story.

Chuck Wagner's property stretches over 20 acres of rolling hills in the East County community of Dulzura.

Last October 21st, Wagner had just minutes to escape before flames roared up onto his land. He lost everything in the Harris fire. After months of hassling with his insurance company, Wagner is finally ready to start rebuilding. County outreach worker Yvonne Purdy-Luxton visits Wagner and checks on his progress.

Yvonne Purdy-Luxton and Wagner: So they're coming up to start your footings this week, is that right? The water tank is on the schedule for this week.

After she gets an update, Purdy-Luxton gets more personal.

Purdy-Luxton and Wagner: So you want to tell us about you know, give us a general idea how you're feelin' now, and where you're at? I was pretty much suicidal, about two weeks after the fire I hit bottom. When you realize that you've lost everything, all the things that you had cherished built your whole life with, gone.

Wagner's feeling a lot better lately. He's looking forward to rebuilding his house, and getting his land back in shape. He says County outreach workers have given him a big boost.

Wagner: Because this is really tough on people. It's hard to keep a positive attitude. So with their help, you know even if it's just talking to them, they've been able to provide the human support that people need to get through this horrible situation.

The county has 36 mental health outreach workers like Purdy-Luxton. Five days a week, they go door-to-door in the fire-ravaged communities of Dulzura, Romona, and Fallbrook. Their primary job is to provide emotional support for fire survivors.

They also let people know what grants and other assistance are available. And they make referrals to mental health counselors. County officials say counselors have helped more than three-thousand people affected by the fires.

Purdy-Luxton figures she's visited with more than a thousand survivors herself. Mostly, she listens a lot…and reads survivors' body language.

Purdy-Luxton: Because a lot of times, things go unsaid. So I watch their eyes, I watch their mannerisms. I watch actually how they're holding themselves, because when you've got the weight of the world on your shoulders, it actually shows physically. And then I can kind of ask them, you know, gee what are you frustrated with, what are you stuck with?

Purdy-Luxton can relate to what Chuck Wagner is going through. That's because she lost her Dulzura home in the fire, too. The property had been in her family for four generations. Like some others in the community, Purdy-Luxton was uninsured. She hasn't been able to raise enough money to rebuild yet.

Purdy-Luxton: In a way I feel like my stuff's on the back burner. But as far as the healing process, because I keep doing and I get to hear so many stories, I get to share in their growth and healing, and that's helping me in my healing.

So Purdy-Luxton continues to touch base with her neighbors.

Purdy-Luxton and Dana Mottola: Well I haven't seen you for a couple of weeks, I just wanted to check on you, see how you guys were doing. I heard, you know, you were gonna get in the FEMA trailer, it looks like that's there now.

The recovery process drags on in this rural area. But Purdy-Luxton is confident things will eventually get back to normal.

Purdy-Luxton: You know, the community is going come back. It kind of is back. You just can't see it yet.

Dulzura had a pre-fire population of around eleven-hundred people. The Harris fire destroyed 290 homes here. Some estimate about half of the homeowners have either chosen not to rebuild, or they can't afford to.

Kenny Goldberg, KPBS News.

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