Minds Scarred by Wildfire: How Disasters Linger

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Aroara Hanes, 5, walks the lot where the mobile home she lived in with her mother stood before the 2018 Camp Fire in Paradise. (Stephanie Lister/KQED)

At first glance, this lot in Paradise seems idyllic: quiet and wooded.

But a closer look reveals scars that the Camp Fire — California's deadliest blaze — etched into the landscape: burnt tree trunks, a warped chain-link fence and melted trinkets missed by cleanup crews.

The scars the fire left on people are more obvious, though. Sabrina Hanes, who lived on this now-empty lot, had a tumultuous childhood and finally found some stability in Paradise until the blaze claimed her and her daughter’s home, belongings and beloved cat — and reignited old trauma.

A year since the fire struck, Hanes, 34, has struggled to avoid the destructive practices she used to cope in the past: "I don't want to be back in that place where I used drugs or did the cutting. But I would be lying to myself if those thoughts haven’t arisen in my head."

Recovering from the physical losses has been a challenge, but the emotional ones have proved tougher for Hanes due to her history of trauma. Natural disasters like the Camp Fire can reopen those old wounds or create new ones, experts say, bringing up trauma symptoms like insomnia, worry and hopelessness.

Sabrina Hanes home schools her daughter Aroara in their trailer on October 7, 2019 outside Paradise, Ca where their home was destroyed in the 2018 Camp Fire.
Sabrina Hanes home-schools her daughter, Aroara, in their trailer on Oct. 7, 2019, outside Paradise, where their home was destroyed in the 2018 Camp Fire. (Stephanie Lister/KQED)

Compounding Trauma Upon Trauma

Before the Camp Fire, Hanes already had more stress than most. She was a single mother, living off of the disability check she received for a bad back, and would skip meals to make sure Aroara had enough food.

She also carried the scars of a painful childhood, including, she said, being raped by a neighbor. The trauma of her past led her to attempt suicide multiple times as a young adult.

But in Paradise she had turned things around, creating a stable routine for herself and Aroara. She was on track to get her bachelor’s degree, with the goal of working in early childhood development. She helped teach classes for toddlers and parents at a nonprofit, and took her daughter to a special kind of play therapy to learn how to better manage Aroara's meltdowns. The pair spent most afternoons at a dance studio, where they found a community.

In its wake, however, the fire destroyed that sense of normalcy.

"It's not just losing the home, it's not just losing the town," Hanes said. "It's losing people that we cared about because they had to move away — because there was nowhere to move."

Losing these social ties has made life harder for Hanes, and so has the reawakening of old, painful memories.

“I think it's stuff that I never fully worked through,” Hanes said. “This trauma has just added this new layer.”

While she is trying to do the best she can, “it's a lot harder to cope with day-to-day life,” Hanes said. Even little challenges set her off: “I feel like it's because of this (the fire). I'm just so angry that this happened."

Sabrina Hanes and her daughter Aroara do a science experiment in their trailer. Hanes chose to homeschool her daughter in part due to behavior issues that emerged after the Camp Fire.
Sabrina Hanes and her daughter, Aroara, do a science experiment in their trailer. Hanes chose to home-school her daughter in part due to behavior issues that emerged after the Camp Fire. (Stephanie Lister/KQED)

‘Another Trauma Often Reawakens Symptoms’

Psychologist Chandra Ghosh Ippen said past trauma, like Hanes’, can resurface.

“If you've had a very heavy trauma history, another trauma often reawakens symptoms,” said Ghosh Ippen, associate director of the Child Trauma Research Program at UCSF.

“When we think about asthma, we think about how there's often a reemergence of symptoms when you're around pollen,” she added. “It’s that same way with trauma. There's a re-emergence of symptoms when you're around reminders.”

That’s been the case for Mary Chelton, of Glen Ellen in Sonoma County. The scars of the 2017 North Bay fires reopened in late October, when the Kincade Fire erupted. Just before the blaze, her mother died. Then she lost power at home during the PG&E preemptive shutoffs — just like what happened during the earlier fires.

“The traumatic reminders of smoke and wind, like the wildfires we experienced previously, has been a less than perfect storm,” she said.

The reminders have also come up in everyday life.

“I've had the experience where I go to eat a smoky type of food like salmon,” she said. “And just the taste of it or the smell of that will make my stomach clench and make my heart start beating faster. It's a visceral reaction that I didn't expect to be sort of scarred with because of what happened a couple of years ago.”

After the 2017 blazes, people "felt fragile, overwhelmed and flooded with fear and stress, said Daniela Domínguez, a psychologist and assistant professor at University of San Francisco.

Domínguez, who has spent the past two years working with community members in Sonoma County affected by the 2017 fires, focuses on the Latinx and undocumented populations.

Reactions to wildfires differ from person to person, ranging from social withdrawal to increased irritability to a lack of self-compassion for the feelings they are experiencing, she said.

For Anayeli Rodriguez, 33, those symptoms have come in the form of nightly anxiety. Rodriguez and her family had to evacuate from their home in Winters during the 2017 North Bay fires and again during the Kincade Fire.

Just a few weeks ago, they were preparing their home for a party following Rodriguez’s daughter’s baptism. Instead of guests coming to their door, it was police with evacuation notices. The family struggled to find an evacuation shelter that was not yet full.

“We feel a lot of sadness about what’s happened these past two years,” she said. Now that they’ve returned home, Rodriguez said her children don’t want to be there alone: “They constantly want to be with us.”

Both Domínguez and Ghosh Ippen said ways to deal with the pain brought up by the wildfires include acknowledging the severity of the event and the feelings it has brought up, and seeking out counseling from people trained in disaster response.

Domínguez cautioned, however, that those services should be responsive to a person’s culture and language.

“We have a lot of wonderful mental health practitioners who understand trauma, but folks who might not necessarily understand the structural barriers, the disparities and the adversities that the Latinx community is experiencing in Sonoma County,” she said.

Domínguez said counseling also isn’t an option that’s available to everyone — especially people who are undocumented and fear using services due to their immigration status. She worries that having no way to process fire trauma will lead to prolonged stress, which can impact physical health in adults and brain development in children.

Aroara sits outside the trailer where she lives with her mother in Butte County.
Aroara sits outside the trailer where she lives with her mother in Butte County. (Stephanie Lister/KQED)

Becoming the Journey

Hanes has seen a change in her daughter Aroara’s behavior since the fire. Aroara gets scared when she smells any kind of smoke, and she began acting out in school, which led Hanes to home-school.

Psychologist Ghosh Ippen said behaviors like Aroara’s are normal and children will exhibit trauma symptoms in several ways, including developmental regressions, tantrums and anger.

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Hanes regularly brings Aroara with her to therapy to work through the lingering impacts of the fire, but she has found it difficult to make time for counseling. She is on disability and is struggling to provide food for herself and her daughter, and she said the trailer where they live always seems to need some repair. She spends evenings preparing lessons for the kindergarten education she’s giving Aroara at home.

Despite a year that has tested her, Hanes said she doesn’t think she will resort to her old coping mechanisms, like cutting herself or drug use, because of Aroara.

This past spring, when she thought cutting herself might bring some relief, she chose a different path. She looked online for meaningful quotes and found one she liked by author Robert M. Drake.

It said; “In the end, she became more than what she expected. She became the journey. And like all journeys, she simply changed directions and kept going.”

She tattooed it on her arm.

“I was on one path. Now I'm on a different path and it's hard,” she said. “But I know that at the end something good will come out of it.”

KQED News' Miranda Leitsinger contributed to this report.