Community Connections Aids Recovery for Wildfire Survivors 

By Patricia Kemp, Red Cross Volunteer

Connie Sager didn’t hesitate when her phone started buzzing Aug. 3 with evacuation alerts. She scooped up her tiny dog, Taz, and headed for safe shelter. It was the third time this year Connie fled wildfires. But this time she had no home to return to in Spring Valley.  The Mendocino Complex Fire swallowed the place she lived for 35 years. What remained were melted bedframes, a charred refrigerator, and clothes smoldered to gray ash.

“My house is a total loss, red-tagged. I’m not processing it yet,” she said.

Even with the memory of the Pawnee Fire still wheeling in her mind from just a few weeks earlier this summer, Connie and her neighbors might have become immune to emergencies. But every blaze, every siren, sparks another round of anxiety.

Frustration, anger, exhaustion, and grief are common emotions that can bubble and bust after disasters of any size.  Most of these reactions go away over time. But for a community like Lake County, which has experienced nine major wildfires in the past three years, recovery is a constant cycle in which residents struggle for their emotional health.

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Getting back to a routine takes time, according to Michelle Labrador, LCSW, a licensed social worker and volunteer Red Cross disaster mental health specialist from Placer County. With more than 35 years in behavioral health, Michelle took a short reprieve from counseling military members for the US Department of Defense to help wildfire victims.

After a disaster, Michelle recommends a one-day-at-a-time approach, which restores survivors with a sense of control.  One initial step to recovery is to tap into social networks of family, friends, neighbors or church members for support.

“It’s important for people to have connections,” she said.  “We’re all human beings and we rely on each other for support. It’s difficult to recover on your own. That’s something that we encourage people to do – find connections if they don’t already have them.”

Being mindful of one’s physical health also helps balance emotional well-being, Michelle added. That includes eating regular meals, staying hydrated and getting plenty of rest.

Another common post-disaster hardship is survivor’s guilt.

“We were out in the community yesterday and there was a mobile home burnt to the ground,” she said. “The neighbor behind them and the neighbor in next to them were not affected at all. So sometimes in those situations, people feel guilty that ‘I have everything and you have nothing,’” she said.

For those, like Connie, who did lose everything, there is hope.

“I had the most amazing wisdom shared upon me. My house is a total loss and I know I’m in denial. I noticed when I went down another street and a friend’s house had burned down and I broke out in tears,” she said. “What the Red Cross worker said to me is that I can grieve for other people right now, just not for the loss of what I’ve had. It made me feel really good that somebody actually knew what was happening. This blindness hasn’t hit me yet.”

Connie also is taking Michelle’s advice and leaning on friends for support.

“Luckily enough I have great friends I can stay with, so I’m still in the same neighborhood,” she said. “We’ll all come together as a community and it will all be ok.”

Anyone feeling stressed after a disaster can contact their local Red Cross or call the 24-hour national Disaster Distress Helpline at 1-800-985-5990.