Heart Rising receives several calls a week from fire survivors who are still trying to restabilize their lives, a year and a half after the Almeda Fire. The fire destroyed thousands of apartments and homes affecting thousands of individuals, couples, and families. Although the community has put some space between themselves by rebuilding and calling upon social service organizations, the negative effects of the firestorm will remain with us for decades.
I received calls from two professional women this week who struggled for months after the fire, just to find places to stay. One spent the past, cold, chilly winter months in a broken RV without running water or electricity. She had formerly lived in a paid-off mobile home and was working full-time for retirement facilities. Her insurance didn’t cover the full cost of a replacement home, so she was unable to get another.
Trauma from the fire has hindered her ability to work full-time. She says every time she hears a siren roaring down 99 or the 5, she begins to shake. If she sees smoke rising from the hills due to a controlled burn, she has to check with various websites and news stations several times before she is reassured another fire hasn’t started. She had to stay inside last Fourth of July because the sound of firecrackers reminded her of crackling flames surrounding her mobile home, and the sparks from the fireworks made her think of what she saw as she barely made it out of her mobile home park alive.
I recently sent an email to local media and asked them to please tone down their use of burning fire graphics on their nightly news casts. I tried to explain that people have been so traumatized that having to look at video from past fires as a backdrop to the news and fire prevention promos only traumatizes them more.
It is not just important for families, helping professionals, medics, doctors and therapists to understand trauma, we all need to understand it, and recognize it in ourselves and others. We live in a time when we are being bombarded with environmental and emotional triggers. It isn’t just going to go away.
If you know someone who has experienced trauma or you are triggered you can share these tips: breathe. Breathe in for a count of four, hold for a count of two, then exhale on six counts. Do this twice. Reassure yourself that nothing bad is really happening. Give yourself facts. Use self-soothing talk, tell yourself you are safe, and you can take care of yourself or call someone you trust who will listen. Try to look around the room and name the first five things you see until you begin to calm down. Pray or meditate. Turn off the TV or cell phone for a few minutes. Try to get out into nature and take a walk. If you need to, call Jackson County Mental Health or Community Health for a therapy referral.
And if you would like to donate, please send a donation to Heart Rising, c/o Thalden Foundation, 550 Ashland Loop Road, Ashland, Oregon 97520. All donations go to help fire survivors and are partially tax-deductible.