Dealing With the New Reality—and Old Trauma—of Fire Season in Sonoma County

The Kincade Fire burns near a vineyard on October 24, 2019 in Geyserville, California.  (Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)

In my house, we keep a basket of face masks near our front door. We've kept them there since 2017, when the Tubbs Fire blazed through my city of Santa Rosa, and since 2018, when the Camp Fire rained ash down on us. Both times, the air in town was thick with smoke.

Just yesterday, I looked at the face masks near the front door, and thought, hopefully, “Maybe we can put those away.”

You probably already know what happened next: late in the night, the Kincade Fire broke out on Geyser Peak in Sonoma County, and spread rapidly from 100 acres, to 300 acres, to 10,000 acres. And, if you're like me, you were glued to your phone, following reports from the area, distressed and unable to sleep.

Smoke, ash, power outages, refreshing fire maps in the middle of the night—this is the reality of what we now casually call “fire season” here in Sonoma County. And with each new fire comes painful memories, raw nerves and buried trauma. It's not enough to get our emergency kits ready and make plans for evacuation, like our local news outlets dutifully remind us to do. Preparing for fire season also means planning mentally, emotionally, psychologically, and resisting the constant low hum of panic.

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That sort of panic is why, last night, emergency operations were flooded with calls from county residents reporting the fire as much closer than it really was. From Santa Rosa, looking in the northeast direction at a giant plume of orange and yellow, I myself had the same rush of recollection to 2017 when Fountaingrove and much of Wikiup in the hills burned completely.

The sensation was unsettling: I knew from news reports that the fire was 24 miles away, but with memories of my childhood home turned to ash and family friends not making it out of the blaze in time, it sure felt closer. Because the feeling is still close.

We use a lot of phrases to describe this feeling. “Fire PTSD.” “Ripping an open wound.” "Triggering." Or, most commonly, people call it “the new normal”—though, I can tell you, it sure doesn't seem normal.

I can also tell you that you're not alone if you're feeling this way every October. My best advice is to call on friends, and to talk through not just your feelings but the information at hand. If all you do is follow news reports on Twitter, naturally your sense of dread will increase. Friends can convey the same information about wind direction, response teams and other conditions in a way that's encouraging instead of anxiety-inducing.

Also, consider calling or texting the National Disaster Distress Hotline, which offers 24-hour, bilingual counseling to people going though emotional distress related to disasters. To talk with a trained crisis counselor, call 1-800-985-5990. (For Spanish, press 2.) To text with a crisis counselor, text “TalkWithUs” (for Spanish, “Hablamos”) to 66746.

Additionally, evacuation centers are often staffed with psychologists, like the one in Healdsburg today. You don't need to have a burned-down home to stop by for a helpful visit with one of them.

Remember: it always feels better to talk about it with someone.

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