Emotional stress is a community-wide challenge and an individual experience
By Ann McCreary
Her first feelings after narrowly escaping the firestorm that destroyed her Finley Canyon home last July 17 were a sense of surrealism, followed by shock.
For a brief time, Susan Speir said, she felt angry that she and her husband hadn’t been officially warned to evacuate before the wildfire roared over the ridge and into the canyon.
She has also experienced guilt feelings about the family heirlooms and antiques that she had been entrusted with — and lost — when the fire took away everything.
But her overriding emotion in the weeks and months after the fire is gratitude.
“This event has been a privilege and a gift in many ways, because it has moved us forward into levels of awareness we would not have had,” Speir said in a recent interview.
“In all natural disasters, and when there’s trauma, it brings the community closer and brings out people’s kindness and generosity and compassion. I think everyone’s awareness of the connections we have is the gift of this event,” she said.
One year after the Carlton Complex Fire, and the flash floods that followed, residents are still grappling with the impacts on their lives and a range of ensuing emotions. Many people acknowledge feeling edgy and anxious as the weather becomes hot and dry, when winds are gusty, when a thunderstorm threatens, or when they hear a siren.
While some people were left without homes or livelihoods, others experienced relatively little direct impact from the fires. But perhaps because of that community connection that Speir described, it seems almost nobody in the fire-impacted area emerged from last summer emotionally unscathed.
“I’ve talked to quite a few people who have had significant losses, as well as those who have not. I’m amazed at how many people who did not experience significant losses are reporting similar anxieties as those who did,” said Lisa Spitzmiller, a Winthrop psychologist.
“We, as a community, experienced that very devastating situation. We all went through this experience together. Even if you didn’t experience loss, you know someone who did, or helped someone who did, and you saw the devastation,” Spitzmiller said.
Hayley Riach, a disaster case manager employed by the Carlton Complex Long Term Recovery Group, has worked with 130 people since she began assisting fire survivors last summer. Working out of Room One in Twisp, Riach currently has 60 open cases and new requests for assistance continue to come in. For many, the disaster is ongoing, she said.
“We see clients brand new to case management as other cases are completed. The general community may have moved on from the event. But the people who lost homes or infrastructure or livelihoods are still in it,” Riach said. “A lot of folks are just getting their foundations poured.”
Riach helps clients with an array of needs, such as temporary housing; employment; assistance in rebuilding wells, septic and other types of infrastructure; arranging “muscle power” to help with clean-up or other work; and providing emotional support. She said she and other case managers have been impressed by the resiliency of disaster survivors.
“I would say some of the things we were expecting were sadness and grief and regret. We were expecting fear and anxiety with increasing temperatures and smoke this summer. It’s really stressful for everyone, I think. What I’m seeing in general is bravery and courage and great coping skills,” Riach said.
“Each of us has a different makeup in terms of resiliency,” said Sue Peterson, a licensed mental health counselor associate who helped facilitate, with Oori Silberstein, a support group at Room One for fire survivors.
In assisting people who have experienced trauma, many counselors use a model that identifies three phases of recovery, Peterson said.
The first phase is establishing a sense of personal safety again and managing strong emotions resulting from the traumatic event.
The second phase is “working through the trauma, taking time for self reflection … processing emotions,” Peterson said. In this phase people are asking, “‘How do I come to terms with these things I’ve lost? How has it impacted me and my relationships?’”
The third phase “is coming to terms and moving forward” after the trauma, she said. “It’s integrating it into your life, and finding out ‘who I am’ after this event. It does alter us, changes our perspective.”
With the one-year anniversary of the fire, and being in the midst of another fire season, it’s natural for people to experience strong emotions, Peterson said.
“It might raise hyper-vigilance again, reactivity to smoke, to sirens. It’s not a step backwards, it’s a part of the process,” Peterson said. “It’s important for people to understand what they’ve survived, and the strength that has taken.”
Becky Studen, who lost a home on Upper Beaver Creek last summer, said she was feeling “super strong — up until the Wenatchee fire happened. It really triggered for me the chaos and uncertainty of last summer.”
Studen is a yoga instructor, and through her teaching she tries to help students learn how to focus on the present, rather than the past or future. She said focusing on the present moment, accepting that she can’t necessarily control events around her, and cultivating gratitude has helped her cope with the losses and changes in her life over the past year.
“I know that there’s uncertainty in everything and I can find peace in staying as present as I can. I can’t control what happens, I can only control how I react,” Studen said.
She said her children have had very different responses to losing their home. Her 14-year-old son wanted to go see the house almost immediately after it burned; her 9-year-old daughter only recently said she wanted to visit the site.
“Everybody has their own process. I’ve learned a lot from my kids. We did lose our home, but we realized that home is about relationships. We miss our own home but we’ve created a new one,” Studen said.
She said finding gratitude “for all the support, the love, and the community support throughout” has been very helpful. “Everybody can find something to be grateful for, even it is ‘I’m breathing, I’m upright,’” Studen said. Cultivating gratitude has been shown to release hormones that reduce stress and lower blood pressure, she said.
“I still have my moments when I cry, realizing the anxiety about what can happen is real,” Studen acknowledged. “A year later, I still feel sad. I give myself time to continue to grieve.”
Recovering from the disaster, especially for people who had significant losses, is made more difficult by what Speir calls “decision-making fatigue.” People faced with trying to find a new home, dealing with insurance, rebuilding a home, and repairing damage to property, can feel overwhelmed.
“A huge source of stress is how many little and big choices they have to make — from tiny stuff to what really matters,” she said. “There are periods of time that feel like you’re standing on a firing range and it’s all just coming at you. There were times when I just had to sit and could not move forward.”
She credits Room One’s fire survivors support group for assisting in her ongoing recovery, and said the experience of the past year has helped her gain new perspective on what is important in her life.
“At 60-some years of life, you are still growing and changing,” Speir said. “My intention is to try to focus on the things that matter and not be consumed by the things that have no lasting value.”
She said the loss of her material possessions — the “evidence” of her life — made her realize that “when all of that goes and you’re still there, you have that sense of history … that there’s something bigger and there really is continuity.”
During a recent visit to their burned-over home site, which is still being cleared of debris, Speir said she and her husband, Dave Hopkins, witnessed an example of that continuity. Bluebirds that had nested by the back door of the house for the past 10 years had returned this year.
“As we sat on the only remaining structural element [of the house] left, a concrete and stucco patio bench, mama bluebird showed up with a worm for her babies who were nesting in the exposed holes in the concrete blocks … where the foundation wall had been. As we sat there and watched her come and go and looked at the beautiful clouds overhead, the message was pretty clear — ‘home is home.’ We are still all connected to this beautiful, sacred place.”