The Sonoma Fires One Year Later: Coping with the New Abnormal in California

Trauma warning for those impacted by wildfire. The following content may be emotionally stirring and potentially triggering.

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Last October, our family (like everyone else in Sonoma County) woke to a sky black with smoke, a horizon on fire and the ashes of our community’s lives floating to the earth like fallen angels. During the night, the Wine Country wildfires had moved across the landscape like the return of a mythological being, unpredictable and energized. In the weeks that followed, we became Sonoma Strong. Yet a year later, we are still hurting and for many, the full impact of loss, anger and grief is only setting in now.

Since that grey dawn, I have worked with fire victims pro-bono, sometimes offering coaching and problem solving for wading through the stress of a re-build, normalizing feelings of guilt and grief as the trauma is processed and most frequently offering empathic understanding for the loss of what was dear - neighbors, houses, trees and animal companions. Our local chapter of CAMFT has been intricately involved with the Wildfire Mental Health Collaborative and My Sonoma Strong, offering groups, yoga, meditation, forest bathing and individual therapy throughout the county. What we have all observed, is that the number of people seeking help trickled in at the beginning, and then at the 6 month mark there was a big uptick. As the rest of the world moved on, Sonoma County residents found they were still living in the ashes.

 Manzanita, Bald Mountain, Sugarloaf Ridge State Park

Manzanita, Bald Mountain, Sugarloaf Ridge State Park

It’s a well known experience for those of us living on the frontiers of Climate Change. California, along with the Carolinas, Houston, many Pacific Islands and New Orleans, are not only at the leading edge of human caused disasters, we are also a sneak preview into the impact these events have on our wellbeing. From the article, “What One Devastated Community Can Teach Us About Mental Health”

Surveys found that after Hurricane Katrina hit the Gulf coast in 2005, one in six survivors met the criteria for PTSD, while half developed an anxiety or mood disorder. Suicide and suicidal thinking doubled in the storm’s aftermath. 
- Matt Simon for wired.com

Christian Burgess, director of the national Disaster Distress Helpline as quoted in “What Wildfires Do To Our Minds”

“During the long term recovery … we start to see deeper mental health concerns from callers and texters, such as persistent anxiety; depression; and substance abuse, which can be related to traumatic exposure during the event; loss of loved ones, including pets; and financial strain,” - yesmagazine.org

When disasters from Climate Change hit the same area more than once (such as in Lake County, CA, which has seen eight fires in seven years), residents can find themselves in a case of double jeopardy. Combine this with already present life strains - economic hardship, racism and oppression or co-occuring mental health issues, and one begins to wonder if there is any way through.

 A California bay laurel tree in Sugarloaf Ridge State Park. Burned all the way through, this tree still leafed out in the spring. A beautiful metaphor for resiliency. This tree is also supported by the other trees around it, through the mycorrhizal web underground that passes nutrients from root to root….also a great metaphor for the importance of community in healing after disaster.

A California bay laurel tree in Sugarloaf Ridge State Park. Burned all the way through, this tree still leafed out in the spring. A beautiful metaphor for resiliency. This tree is also supported by the other trees around it, through the mycorrhizal web underground that passes nutrients from root to root….also a great metaphor for the importance of community in healing after disaster.

Personally, I have felt the strain as wildfires in California coincide with ecological grief — a state of chronic sorrow that ebbs and flows in the face of environmental destruction. It becomes what philosopher Glenn Albrecht calls Solistalgia - feeling homesick and bereft while witnessing ecological collapse in the place where one lives and/or feels deeply bonded.

On July 23rd, when I heard news of the Carr Fire in my hometown of Redding, I watched video of the flames licking the shores of Whiskeytown Lake and thought of the grey fox kit I once rescued along the road there; how he mewed in gratitude after I offered him a cap-full of water, both of us overheating on the asphalt. After the initial shock from the news, I felt… nothing. Or rather, I felt a numbness that slowly thawed into depression and heightened emotional sensitivity. I felt hopeless, a feeling which permeated into my experience of the Kavanaugh news cycle. My anxiety also increased, along with difficulty sleeping.

I talk about the importance of resilience in the face of climate change and environmental catastrophe like it’s my job - because it is. Ecopsychology is not only about reconnecting the human animal to nature, it is also about how the human community can meet the upheaval caused by climate instability. As a psychotherapist, and as a citizen, I understand that one of the most effective and radical steps we can take towards this resiliency is to meet ourselves right where we’re at. Most of the time, this means acknowledging our feelings of despair, grief and anxiety and allowing for them. It sounds too simple - that can’t really be the answer, can it? Isn’t there some life hack, power of intention, new research or fancy technique to employ? You can certainly try any number of things, but time and again, what I have discovered both as a clinician, and as a sensitive hearted soul, is that feeling our feelings the key to true healing.

 New growth coming up from the root crown of a badly burned madrone, Bald Mountain, Sugarloaf Ridge State Park.

New growth coming up from the root crown of a badly burned madrone, Bald Mountain, Sugarloaf Ridge State Park.

As I struggled with wildfires and solastalgia this summer, I finally realized that I needed to give myself the space to get messy. To fall apart, to not know the answers, and to allow the truth of my love for this world to break my heart. Once I was able to do this, my despair began to lift and my anxiety dissipated. My care and concern didn’t cease, but I was no longer incapacitated by unexpressed grief. Most of my clients who sought help after the fires were also having difficulty giving themselves permission to really grieve. They didn’t want to burden family or friends, and they also didn’t feel their grief was valid. Francis Weller, psychotherapist and author of The Wild Edge of Sorrow speaks to the vital importance of allowing for grief,

I am not suggesting that we live a life preoccupied with sorrow. I am saying that our refusal to welcome the sorrows that come to us, our inability to move through these experiences with true presence and conscious awareness, condemns us to a life shadowed by grief. Welcoming everything that comes to us is a challenge. This is the secret to being fully alive.

As Weller says, welcoming everything isn’t easy. For many people, despite our intellectual understanding that tears are cleansing, even crying is difficult and resisted. But there is a way to ride the waves of emotional experience so that they are profoundly healing rather than debilitating. Called grief work, it combines mindful and somatic (body based) awareness, often coupled with witnessing by a therapist, or in community in a ritual setting. Writing, artwork, dance and singing can also be incorporated so that the heart can truly express itself. What we then discover on the other side is that grief holds a gift for us in its hands - an increased capacity to love, to give and receive compassion and to respond with resilience to the stress of our times.

Our culture rewards emotional repression and the appearance of being “strong” and taking action. But when we jump to “doing something” and push away our grief, we not only abandon our own hearts, we also set ourselves up for burn-out and anxiety. Again, what I have found for both myself and others, is that grief work is renewing, and my best and most inspired activism has come from that wellspring. I also definitely advocate for getting involved with local causes (relief efforts, ecological restoration, marches, fundraising etc.) because a sense of “making a difference” is important. It’s a crucial next step towards resilience… after we have allowed grief to transmute our pain.

 A fairy lantern, blooming in the ashes at Sugarloaf Ridge.

A fairy lantern, blooming in the ashes at Sugarloaf Ridge.

If you are in need of mental health support, or are interested in learning more about coping in the New Abnormal, I invite you to explore the resources listed below. If you are interested in doing grief work, I am available, and you can also ask potential therapists if they specialize in grief work and/or have experience with somatic psychotherapy, mindfulness and/or trauma recovery.

Sonoma County Mental Health Support

My Sonoma Strong - bilingual support available
Wildfire Mental Health Collaborative
Sonoma Rises - a self care app for trauma recovery
Free counseling through ReCAMFT
Sonoma County non-crisis helpline (NAMI Warmline)
Yoga for Trauma Relief

Books and Articles

The Wild Edge of Sorrow by Francis Weller
Healing through the Dark Emotions: The wisdom of fear, grief and despair by Miriam Greenspan
What Wildfires Do to Our Minds - Dani Burlison for yesmagazine.org
What One Devastated Community Can Teach the World About Mental Health - Matt Simon for wired.com