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Factoring Mental Health Into Wildfire Emergency Plans, As Risk Of Fire Increases In California

Flames from the Witch Creek fire light up the early Friday morning sky in nor...

Photo by Jon Vidar / Associated Press

Above: Flames from the Witch Creek fire light up the early Friday morning sky in northern San Diego County, Oct. 26, 2007.

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Wildfires can leave scars across the land, but they can also leave a mark on the human psyche.

Aired: November 14, 2019 | Transcript

It’s wildfire season in California. And though risk will eventually die down, the trauma these fires inflict on families can linger for a lifetime.

That's why some psychologists say mental health ought to be part of residents’ emergency plans.

Unexpected Trauma

Magen Queen and her husband, Joe, weren't thinking about the sentimental items in their home when they started to smell smoke. They were sleeping in their Rancho Bernardo rental house when they awoke to sirens.

"We looked out the window and there was a wall of flames just coming down the hill. I think one of us said, 'we gotta get out of here,'" Magen said.

Joe Queen remembers when they had to wake up their children. They were 1 and 6 years old.

"Our son, who was 6 at the time, he didn’t get up right away and we had to yell at him again and say, 'Get up, we need to move,'" Joe said.

Photo by Shalina Chatlani

Magen Queen and her husband Joe are pictured here in this photo taken on November 2, 2019.

The Queens arrived in Rancho Bernado six months before October 2007, when the Witch Creek wildfire ripped through hundreds of thousands of acres of land and destroyed more than 1,200 homes. Flames were all around the family as they drove to getaway.

"We were so traumatized, we got lost. We didn’t know where we were going," Magen said.

The Queens made it to an evacuation center with their kids. But, the next day, they found out that their rented house had burned down.

They have settled in a home close to their old neighborhood, but the Queens said the fire still lives with them more than a decade later.

"I would be in the drawers in the kitchen cooking, looking for something and I’m like, 'Where is it?' And I go, 'Oh it burned in the fire.' And then that would kind of sadden us," Magen said.

Post-traumatic stress can be lifelong

People cope with losing personal belongings, homes and pets differently. UCLA psychologist Emanuel Maidenberg said while some recover quickly, others experience long-lived trauma.

"They experience symptoms as if was happening again. Anticipatory anxiety, not being able to fall asleep, changes in appetite, irritability. Feeling as if something terrible can happen at any point," Maidenberg said.

Magen Queen, for example, said even the smell of smoke or news of hot and dry Santa Ana winds puts her on high alert.

Maidenberg said people who are already experiencing stress when a fire breaks out, may be more susceptible to these symptoms over time. And some people are genetically wired to develop post-traumatic stress more easily.

Post-traumatic stress is common enough, but the American Psychiatric Association also estimates one in 11 U.S. adults will be diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder in their lifetime.

"The changes can be detected on all levels. Behavioral levels, emotional, psychological levels and physiological level," Maidenberg said.

The impact of a traumatic event can vary depending on a person's genetic make-up and environment, Maidenberg said,

Getting prepared

But, some people may need more help. And they may not know they need it before it’s too late, according to Tina Casola, a licensed mental health counselor.

The Red Cross calls upon counselors such as Casola during natural disasters. At the Red Cross in Kearny Mesa, emergency responders are equipped with computers and maps to quickly dispatch resources. While they send out material goods, they also provide mental health services.

That’s because people go through a lot when disaster strikes, and they need to talk about it, Casola said.

"Through these experiences, our beliefs about ourselves and the world around us have been changed. A lot of times it has to do with trust. Did I make the right decision? Should I have done something differently?" Casola said.

That type of thinking might happen as displaced families sit in an evacuation center right after fleeing a fire.

"In our fire situations, there’s a lot of limbo time, where we don’t have information, and we don't know what's happening. That can be very distressing on people," Casola said.

Red Cross services can help alleviate some pain, Casola said. But, the traumatic experience may run deeper than some people expect.

That’s why, Casola said, residents should factor mental health into their emergency plans before disaster strikes, along with material necessities like food and money.

As fire season continues, one thing Casola recommends is that people know ahead of time who they could go to for support in case of an emergency.

"Who do I have to support me? What are the really important things to me? How do I know when I need help? How am I going to read my body?" Casola said.

People who continue to struggle with painful memories should try to find hobbies and activities and invest in those, Casola said. In some circumstances, she said they also shouldn't be afraid to seek out therapy.

In fact, Megan and Joe Queen said they took advantage of counseling opportunities right after the 2007 fires. So, they can be prepared to handle stress and personal loss if an event like a major wildfire happens again.

Now they know how to focus on positive memories they have gained since their home burned down.

"It’s easy to sit there and focus on 'I lost my yearbook,' when you look at that you start getting down and say, 'ah, that sucks, I don’t have this or that anymore.' But, you know, we have everybody," Joe Queen said.

The Queens also said they are prepared. They now keep a box of sentimental items, like family photographs, by the door.

Listen to this story by Shalina Chatlani.

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