The Psychological Aftermath Of Fires: Counseling Coverage In Home Insurance – Three years after the devastating wildfires, Californians are dealing with another problem: PTSD. Is what is happening there a warning for all of us?
Smoke from the Camp Fire covers Butte Creek in Paradise, Calif., in 2018. (Ray Chavez/Digital First Media/The Mercury News/Getty Images)
The Psychological Aftermath Of Fires: Counseling Coverage In Home Insurance
Jess Mercer got a call from her stepmother, Annette, that morning, just after 8:00 a.m.: “We’re coming,” Annette said, her voice vague enough to sound foreign. Jess was in her apartment in Chico, Calif., a university town located in the foothills of Paradise Mountain, about 20 minutes away. She was confused. It was early, on a weekday: Thursday, Nov. 8, 2018. He wasn’t looking forward to visiting Annette, or her father, Tommie.
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Things got worse: The sky darkened. The ash fell like black snow, except for the heat, and it carried the smell of smoke. Her family, Jess realized, was trying to escape the wildfire.
He heard his father’s voice on the line. Everything he said was short: “Remember everything I told you before.” I don’t know. I’m trying.”
The call scared Jess, and it made her think “I don’t know” meaning she didn’t know if she would get out in time. He jumped into his car, pointed it towards Paradise, and didn’t go anywhere before realizing that the roads were already closed. So, instead, Jess stood on the side of the iconic Skyway, next to the Walmart parking lot, and watched the traffic stream out of Paradise. He called his family 60, 70, 80 times, but cell towers were burning like pitchforks and service was unreliable.
For an hour, he looked at the faces of the frightened people in every car that passed, looking to see if he recognized them. A woman with six children in her car, good. Sedans were piled high with people whose heads hit the roof, gasping for air. There’s no sign of Tommie and Annette’s green car, yet.
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Jess, now 36, moved to Paradise from Wyoming when she was 16. For the first year, she lived at the Lantern Inn with Tommie and Annette. Their small motel room had thin walls and a single bed; Jess lay down. Money was tight. In the evenings, the staff at the Cozy Diner across the street gives Jess leftovers from the salad, usually with wraps and vegetables.
Later, his family moved into a three-room, light beige house on Dolores Drive in Paradise. Jess remembers how proud her father was of moving there. It was the first house he had bought since moving to California, 20 years earlier.
When Jess turned 18, she moved to Chico to be closer to her job as a supermarket cashier. Even then, he spent most of his time on the mountain, an area known locally as the Ridge. For the next ten years, he moved between Chico and Paradise, until 2018 when he moved into a bright blue house in Paradise with his partner, Ashley, and planned to stay forever. But in May of that year, he found that the house had its foundation, and he was also found in another house in Chico.
That’s when Tommie and Annette appeared at the door, four hours after calling Jess. Tommie, who was 70 years old at the time, was wearing burnt trousers, torn shoes and no teeth. He picked up the cat’s box but forgot to put the cat inside.
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By the time the Camp Fire burned, it had leveled the town of Paradise, as well as many of the surrounding areas: Magalia, Concow, Pulga and Butte Creek Canyon. Over 150,000 acres will be burned, 18,000 homes will be destroyed. At least 85 people have been killed. It was, and is, the deadliest and most destructive wildfire in California history.
Gone was the Lantern Inn at Skyway and the light beige house at Dolores and the seven other places that Jess had once called home. What was left, cruelly, was enough to remind him that he once had a town: the trash cans at the Cozy Diner for $4.99 cheeseburgers, the movie posters for the movie “A Star Is Born.” Three years later, the symptoms remain, much to Jess’ dismay. He said: “Being empty is one thing. “Being cold over time causes it.”
In May 2016, Jess was diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder, mainly due to living in the house with her schizophrenic brother. But after the fire was over, his fears grew. Now, he sees a doctor several times a month and takes several medications. Six months after the fire, his friend called him “nothing.” The first time he had a panic attack was on the one year anniversary of the fire. The second was last December. Both times he was hospitalized.
He always feels like he’s in a fight-or-flight situation, he says. If he reaches down to pick something up, he doesn’t kneel down. That way if he starts running, he will be ready to run. A split second can determine whether you live or die. He knows this. Recently, a fire alarm went off at a work meeting and he left the room.
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Sometimes he gets angry, as if there is a “monster” inside him that can come out at any moment. Sometimes, he is so numb, he can speak in pain like ordering a sandwich.
He could feel pain in his body. Every time the reminder of fire has caused him to throw up and hurt until he goes into the jar; it has caused a person to faint. When a seizure occurs, it’s like her body is trying to release PTSD, she explains.
To say that everyone in the community affected by the Camp Fire is suffering from PTSD would be an understatement. But of the many people I’ve talked to about this, almost everyone has said they have PTSD or PTSD. There were other factors, of course: increased alcohol and drug use, anxiety, depression, anger, survivor’s guilt, grief. A select few were completely positive, telling me how the fire gave them the opportunity to rebuild their lives in a positive way. But mostly, I heard about PTSD.
From Hippie, a 60-year-old veteran who is still scarred from the day he rode a motorcycle through flames. From Iris, a store owner whose boyfriend was lost in a fire. From Dawn, a mother of two who is still very scared. From Sean, who was so fed up with fire sirens that triggered his PTSD that he went to the beach and contemplated suicide. From Corinne, an artist who had a heart attack in her 50s due to stress.
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Many scientific studies: A study by scientists at the University of California San Diego published in February in the International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health found that a large number of survivors of the Camp Fire were suffering from various mental illnesses, many. severe PTSD. “The prevalence of PTSD that we saw in the population was striking and very important,” says Jyoti Mishra, lead author of the study and a professor in the department of psychiatry at the UC San Diego School of Medicine. “It was similar to what we expected to see from the war veterans, but now we’re seeing it in places where people are being burned. It really shows the impact of climate change.”
Experts say what comes next is a disaster of sorts. The mental health care system is not designed to deal with a world where many people are chronically depressed and anxious, and its antiquated methods mean that many people will not get the help they need. Susanne Moser, a leading expert on climate change, says: “The doctors, the counselors, the mental health community are too late. “They’re 20 years behind – at least.”
Lise Van Susteren, a D.C.-based psychiatrist, says “nothing is more thoughtful than mental health and climate.” He added: “In most cases, weather damage can be controlled. You can rebuild, you can restore, you can replant. But the big impact on our mental health makes people aware of how people work. Mental health problems are not invisible scars. It permeates our personal, political, economic and social lives, every day. “
It is impossible to ignore that climate change is a political issue. Not everyone accepts it as an existential threat. Maybe that’s why it’s hard to accept, or easy to ignore, the gradual impact climate change will have on our mental health: that before the air pollution gets into our lungs, it can drive most of us crazy.
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“Physical damage due to weather can be controlled.
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