As Fire Trauma Lingers, Santa Rosa Health Care Center Takes the Long Road

1 min
Naxheli Zuniga Contreras' children are still dealing with anxiety from last years' North Bay Fires. (Julia McEvoy/KQED News)

Naxheli Zuniga Contreras first came to the Integrated Wellness Center in Santa Rosa to get her kids some tutoring help. She liked that it was a place open after school and work, that she didn't need any documentation and the services were free. There was even a nurse and mental health counseling.  But it wasn't until the smoke from the Butte County Camp Fire some 150 miles away drifted over Santa Rosa that she found herself there asking for the first time for mental health care.

"I'm worried for myself, the safety for my family. We haven't been able to sleep," Zuniga said, through a translator.

The smoke took them back to that horrifying night of the Tubbs Fire a year ago when they smelled smoke and heard the flames coming and had to race from their home. When the family returned a week later their home was a smoke-damaged disaster.

"We are so worried it's going to come back and it's going to be another fire," said Zuniga.  "And we're going to have to go back to that situation and start all over again."

Zuniga began feeling so anxious she said she couldn't find the words to calm her children, so she took them to the Integrated Wellness Center.

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"I think when the parent has anxiety, the kids pick up on this," she said.  Zuniga's daughter had come home from school and told her mom that girls she knew were crying at school after they saw the smoke.

"I want her to talk to a counselor. I hope they can help." she said.

Students can get tutoring while parents access mental health counseling. (Julia McEvoy/KQED News)

The Santa Rosa City Schools District started the center temporarily in an empty school building during the holidays last year after the Tubbs fire when it was clear families were going to continue to need help during the school break. It's since become a permanent community clinic of sorts, open three days a week after school.

Clients now include a secondary wave of families who are renters who have been displaced, sometimes by home owners who needed to move back in. Sometimes these renters could only find housing miles away from their kids' schools, says Steve Mizera, head of the district's student and family services.

"The long term-ness of these problems for these families that have been displaced is really hitting hard right now," said Mizeri.

The Integrated Wellness Center is open again this holiday season, staffed by county office emergency fire recovery therapists, or school counselors, Mizera said.

Some of the books available to kids in the Wellness Center.

Santa Rosa city schools are feeling the long-term effects of the Tubbs fire, which leveled much of Coffey Park and destroyed thousands of homes. Sonoma County Office of Education calculates the county has lost some 1,600 students. But for those who lost homes and have been able to resettle, the stressors continue and Mizera says that anxiety is showing up in classrooms.

"There was an initial first wave of impact and now this second wave," said Mizera. "We call it 'fire-affected'. He said its hard to know how many families are dealing with this because many try to hide their troubles.

But this fall when school started Mizera said staff picked up on the tension right away, "It was like it was spring," he said, referring to the end of school energy teachers often brace for during a normal school year, "Everyone noticed it."

Mizera said the fallout from the fires here is still rippling out for staff and students well past the one year anniversary last October, "It's just a lot of anxiety of living conditions. So all those little stressors have kind of magnified themselves in many many ways."

"There's a lot of angst," he said."We are realizing fire trauma may be something we will be dealing with for a long time."

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