The fire wasn’t supposed to come to Hannah Hardy’s house. Though the Carr Fire had broken out a few days before in Shasta County, Calif., and her boss had given her time to gather her things in case of an evacuation order, she had only moved things closer to the door. Her father, who works at Cal Fire, said it probably wouldn’t head her way. But then on Wednesday night, she realized he might have been wrong.
‘It was hot and loud’
“You can see over the city into where we live up in the mountains, and it was red — the sky was red, everything was red,” the 20-year-old student and assistant manager at Spencer’s gift shop tells Yahoo Lifestyle. “I had the worst gut feeling. We went home, and it was even crazier over there. It was redder than it was in town, and hot. Redding gets hot, it gets 110, 115 here during the day and stays to 100 degrees at night. But it was too hot. ‘Something wasn’t right’ kind of hot.”
Still, she and girlfriend Bella Brace managed to go to sleep that night, only to be awakened an hour later by a neighbor they’d never met pounding on the door to tell them they were being evacuated.
“I said, ‘How long do we have?’ And she said, ‘Realistically, under five minutes,'” Hardy recalls. The woman then took the time to wake up other neighbors, even as smoke began to fill their homes. All Hardy was able to grab was a bag she’d never unpacked from a camping trip weeks earlier, her film camera, a couple of rolls of film, and her dog.
“I kind of had an idea of what I needed to grab, but in the moment of needing to grab it, it was a lot less mentally clear what I remembered to get,” she says. “Both Bella and I were just terrified. It was so much all at the same time. … It was hot and loud. I didn’t think about it until I saw video clips of the fire — that what I was hearing the whole time was just fire.”
Chunks of fiery tree embers were falling as they got into their car and raced away. After pausing at a friend’s house in town, and nixing the idea of a shelter where they might be separated from their dog, Brace and Hardy drove all the way to Sacramento, more than 150 miles away, to stay in a hotel.
Shelter and shock
As of this writing, the Carr Fire has killed six people and destroyed more than 1,000 homes as it has raged through 196 square miles. It is only 35 percent contained. Reading those numbers, or watching the flames from the safety of a screen, doesn’t do much to convey the experience of fleeing for your life from a fire or learning that your home is gone.
Major Ivan Wild, Salvation Army divisional commander for the Del Oro Division in northern California, often witnesses what evacuees go through in the immediate aftermath of wildfires.
“They’re of course glad to be safe, get a hot meal, and get hydrated, but then they start to process: ‘I don’t know if my home is there.’ ‘I didn’t have time to grab my pet,'” Wild says. “They’re not sure if they’ll be able to go back or when they can go back.”
Many people describe their first emotion after a fire as “shock.”
“It’s a feeling that this can’t be real,” says Doreen Van Leeuwen, a therapist and core committee member of the Wildfire Mental Health Collaborative in Sonoma County. “We’ll use language like, ‘I can’t wrap my head around this. It’s just too much for the brain to be able to process.'”
Survivors will also feel grief over what they’ve lost and “real, deep tiredness” after their ordeal, she says. In addition to getting their basic needs of food, shelter, and water met, either in someone else’s home or at a shelter, what they need most is “psychological first aid” — reassurance from calm, logical people who can provide a sense of security.
The trauma of fire
Less than a year ago, Martin Ananias was definitely in need of some security. He too had been awakened in the middle of the night by a neighbor in the Santa Rosa, Calif., home he shared with his father. It was the first night of the Tubbs Fire, which became the most destructive in the state’s history, destroying 5,636 structures and killing 22 people.
With a few documents and the clothes on their back, the men drove down the hill to a scene of complete chaos in town.
“There was a Hilton on the bottom of the hill, and people were just running outside the rooms,” he recalls to Yahoo. “What was really frightening was that no one had control of the situation. I don’t think I’ve ever been in a situation where people had lost control completely. That’s what makes it really scary. Nobody had any sense of protocol of what to do.”
Hearing this description helps explain why, after a natural disaster such as this, around 30 to 40 percent of direct victims experience posttraumatic stress disorder.
“There are a lot of overlapping similarities between the different kinds of intense, life-threatening stressor experiences, like sexual assault, unexpected death of a loved one, fleeing for your life in a fire, combat, or interpersonal violence, [or] a terrorist assault,” says Joe Ruzek, director of the Center for M2 Health at Palo Alto University and one of the developers of the self-help site MySonomaStrong.com.
Survivors of a wildfire may be experiencing several extreme stressors at once: the fear involved in fleeing for their lives, death of a loved one, worry for their loved ones and pets, grief over the loss of their belongings and home, financial worries, and the sudden loss of their community.
“People may have intrusive thoughts or nightmares, and they may have high levels of bodily arousal,” Ruzek says, adding that they may also experience depression and anxiety. “Different people are differently vulnerable.”
In the days after the fire, Hardy is feeling some of those symptoms.
“You’ll remember certain things, and it will instantly terrify you,” she says. “When we were getting back home last night from work, it was smoky outside, and I got super-anxious and nervous because of the smoke and not having an idea of where a fire might be at that moment.”
A community safety net
When the fires start to be contained, and most people are out of harm’s way, the news headlines begin to fade away. But as Ananias puts it, surviving the fire is “just the beginning of the battle.”
The only store open near where he was staying in Healdsburg, after being forced from his home in Santa Rosa, was a Walmart, where he was able to buy some clothes to wear. He counts himself lucky that he had money to buy such things. Many people, particularly undocumented workers who work in the surrounding vineyards, had so much less.
“They’ve lost absolutely everything,” he says. “They’re completely lost.”
But what amazed Ananias amid this tragedy was watching how the community came together to help each other. “There were pop-up stores where they would give out free stuff,” he recalls. “In that first month, there was so much support that it was somewhat overwhelming.”
Social support is another key to recovery from this kind of trauma, says Debbie Mason, CEO of the Healthcare Foundation of Northern Sonoma County, which is also part of the Wildfire Mental Health Collaborative.
“One of the No. 1 indicators for people in having a healthy resiliency is being socially connected,” she tells Yahoo.
Hardy, whose mother started a GoFundMe page for her over the weekend, already recognizes what a difference the support of others can make.
“That tends to make it seem a little less crazy and a little less scary, knowing that [there are] so many people willing to help,” she says.
Even those who aren’t able to be in touch with their own family and friends can find that connection in others.
“When I was at the evacuation center at Shasta College, just seeing evacuees helping and supporting one another, there’s that sense of community,” the Salvation Army’s Wild says. “It is amazing, the human spirit, when these types of things happen. When people show up to help, then everybody starts rallying around that.”
From flight to fight
In those early days, fire victims need both emotional support and practical help to navigate the bureaucracy of disaster relief. Some find distraction and motivation in being busy, but others can barely manage it.
“There’s just a lot of emotions [that people experience], and not knowing what they’re going to do or where they’re going to go, they kind of become disoriented,” Wild explains. “Having people sit down with them and go step by step, referring to the different agencies, it really does help.”
Ananias went back to his job in patient accounting at Healdsburg District Hospital two days after his house burned down.
“In a way, it helped to be at work, just to forget about what happened,” he says. At the same time, he wishes he had taken more time off, just to fill out forms for insurance and FEMA assistance, all of which was complicated by the fact that so many of his documents were now ashes, along with his childhood photos.
Van Leeuwen says people go through various phases, like the stages of grief, following a disaster. After shock and numbness comes anger.
“The anger is good when it mobilizes us,” she says. “It provides the needed energy to get on with life, to do what we’ve got to do and kick it into gear and get going, even though it hurts, even though it sucks. We’ve got to find the energy to survive. The anger isn’t a bad thing. It’s worse when we internalize it or try to make it go away by drinking or doing other things we do to get rid of our feelings.”
The depression wall
Next, people might experience a bargaining phase, in which they experience wishful thinking that the pain will go away, followed by depression.
“People in our community at this point are starting to hit that depression wall,” Van Leeuwen says. “They realize their neighborhoods are not going to be the same. Some of their neighbors are going to sell their property or move away. The trees are all gone.”
All of this is why the Wildfire Mental Health Collaborative keeps trying to inform their community about the resources they can use to take care of themselves as the first anniversary of the Tubbs Fire approaches. These resources range from free therapy and group counseling to yoga classes designed for trauma victims. The collaborative also encourages people to visit MySonomaStrong.com.
Some people needed that help right away, while others might need it now, particularly as they hear the very triggering news of other fires around the state.
“Most people don’t address [their mental health] until the period between nine months and two years after a trauma,” Mason says. “That’s when most people wake up out of that daze and say, ‘Oh, I’m not going to be able to power through this. I need some help.'”
Hardy says she has considered seeking counseling once things settle down. For now, she’s just relying on the support of friends and family, who are also giving her and Brace a place to live.
“Prior to living in that house, I stayed with some friends in their living room, and I was bouncing between houses and living in my car for part of it,” she says. “I worked up to having the money to have all that stuff and to have a stable life.”
Though Hardy didn’t have renters’ insurance, she feels that because she was able to do it once, she can work and save all over again to get back to that sense of stability.
Ananias says his coping method is to stay as busy as possible. He and his father are living in an apartment complex close to his old home, and they see daily reminders of how long the rebuilding process will take. California’s rising home prices mean that many homeowners’ insurance policies don’t cover the true cost of building or buying a new home in the area. That means many people have moved elsewhere, but Ananias is determined to stay put.
“I fell in love with Santa Rosa after this,” he says. “The outpouring of support showed me what home is. There was no moment where I thought I was going to move from Santa Rosa. I think this just made my roots a little deeper.”
Read more from Yahoo Lifestyle:
- A clip of a baseball player consoling his teammate is going viral for all the right reasons
- After letting an autistic customer help stock shelves, a young employee is being applauded for his act of kindness
- This 27-year-old Maasai woman helped 15,000 girls escape ‘the cut’