The impact of wildfires is all too familiar to Californians

In the wake of loss from wildfires, Californians cope with the emotional impacts of natural disasters.

Amanda Frese, Managing Editor

My mom wrapped pictures of my relatives in pillowcases, while I packed my duffel bag with clothes for two weeks after my family heard that the Rim Fire spread toward the canyon ridge behind our home in Tuolumne, California. Ash fell from the sky like snow in December, while we drove to my grandma’s house where we lived for 10 days, until fire officials declared the Rim Fire contained. 

Indefinite evacuation became a normality for many Californians in recent years. In 2021 alone, the Sacramento Bee reported that fires prompted over 18,000 evacuations. Uncertainty and anxiety from abrupt loss caused by fires must be addressed in California in order to empathize with those affected and better respond to those experiencing trauma after these natural disasters. 

WHAT IS LOST  

Dogwood trees created canopies above the creek where my dad and I cast our fishing lines into the water. Where the woods from the Stanislaus Forest once lined Cottonwood Road—the route to our favorite fishing spot—trees protruded from the ground, stripped of branches and leaves. The Rim Fire in August 2013 burned 257,314 acres, including 154,530 acres of national forest, leaving a permanent scar on places of sentimental value to not only myself, but to the entire community of Tuolumne for generations. 

When widespread fires ensue, emotional turmoil arises from losing homes and places of significance. In 2020, over 10,000 structures were destroyed across the state, according to California’s fire incident report. Patricia Watson, a psychologist specializing in post-traumatic stress disorder, stated in The Atlantic that after interviewing 50 survivors of California fires, interviewees described feeling unable to manage stress. Additionally, many explained recollections of loss when they could not find items of value—realizing those items were gone forever.  

IMPACTS OF LOSS 

When an entire community experiences the impacts of wildfires, Watson described a characteristic called “community-wide trauma,” which damages an entire community’s sense of hope. Communities accept a normality of destruction from wildfires. Especially in California, the increasing prevalence of wildfires compounds feelings of hopelessness, as the devastation occurs so often, Watson explained. 

This year the Dixie Fire in Northern California regions endangered the town of Paradise, which experienced detrimental loss during the Camp Fire of 2018. According to The Associated Press, those living in the area explained shock, stating that “nothing’s safe,” and calling the recurrence “unfathomable.” 

Exhausted from fleeing fire after fire, enduring PG&E power shut-offs during fire danger seasons and coping with the loss of homes and loved ones, some Californians are choosing to leave the state—permanently. The Public Policy Institute of California reported that 6.1 million people moved out of California in the 2010s—the years in which the Camp Fire, Butte Fire and Dixie Fire occurred—three of the most deadly fires in California history

WHAT CAN RESPONSE LOOK LIKE? 

When the Rim Fire impacted my community, my neighbor cooked dinner for first responders—inviting firefighters to eat at picnic tables he set up in his front yard. My mom baked cookies for firefighters who slept in a fire truck in front of our house, even after we were evacuated.

The loss of wildfires is “unfathomable.” It is abrupt. There is no way to restore the places and the people that are lost in these natural disasters. However, addressing feelings of hopelessness that impact countless communities and the entire state of California will help people meet each other where they are. 

The creek where my dad and I fished before the Rim Fire may not be canopied by leaves or surrounded by sugar pine trees anymore, but the slow regrowth reminds me of how our community coped—together. 

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