Smoke = stress 

The psychological aftermath of wildlife

A dozen and half Potomac-Greenough residents sit in a semi-circle around a map of the Mineral-Primm fire complex. They look nervous and tired as they wait to find out if their homes are still in danger from encroaching flames. A fire information officer addresses the crowd. He tells the residents things are improving, burnouts are going well, fire lines are holding and it’s unlikely that they’ll be evacuated. But his take-home message is that it isn’t over quite yet.

After fielding a handful of questions, the fire information officer sits down, and Carol Sem, the Red Cross’ disaster mental health services coordinator, steps up.

“How many of you are tired?” Sem asks. “How many of you are exhausted?”

The only response she gets is a low mumbling.

“Well, we want you to know that we’re not going away,” she says. “You can call us any time if you have any needs.”

Sem has been to dozens of meetings like this one, both this year and during the 2000 fire season. She smiles as she talks, makes eye contact with the crowd and cracks jokes—but she has a somber message to deliver. After explaining the physical health risks the fire poses, she shifts to the mental health risks. Evacuees and non-evacuees both can show signs of post-disaster stress, she says. Symptoms like nightmares and insomnia, headaches and irritability aren’t uncommon, and sometimes won’t show up until three, six or even 12 months after the initial trauma.

After years of this work, Sem knows that it’s tough to convince people that it isn’t just homes and physical health concerns with which the Red Cross deals. She also knows that not everyone is willing to embrace the idea that post-disaster stress can have physical manifestations, and that her words need to resonate with the crowd if she is to do any good.

She asks for questions when she’s done, but there is only dead silence. She thanks the group and a scattered applause breaks out.

Listening to Sem, non-evacuee Roseanne Fitzpatrick takes the physical health concerns seriously.

“I’ve got a bad heart,” says Fitzpatrick, “and I was scared, because for a while the smoke was so bad. I was tired and I had a bad headache.”

But she isn’t worried about her mental health.

“I have my husband, and he kept telling me, ‘don’t worry, don’t worry,’” she says. “But I was wondering if he was worried because he got cranky. I was wondering if the was telling me not to worry because he was a little worried.”

Fitzpatrick believes the fire season is winding down, and isn’t concerned with lingering physical or mental health problems. Though Fitzpatrick doesn’t believe she and her husband are at risk from the stress, according to recent research, Fitzpatrick—who was ping-ponged between being put on and taken off evacuation notice—is a perfect example of those most at risk for developing post-trauma symptoms.

University of Montana psychology doctoral student Ellen Crouse spent the months following the 2000 wildfires studying the effects of the fires on 62 residents threatened by the Bitterroot blazes. During the fires, residents reported to her that their community “felt like a combat zone” for weeks, with low-flying helicopters and planes buzzing overhead and fiery debris from exploding trees falling from the sky.

“Originally what I thought was that evacuees, just because of that experience of going through evacuation and being uprooted, would have the worst symptoms,” she says. “I don’t think [earlier research] had accounted for what the experience of sitting in the middle of the fires was like.”

Crouse found that non-evacuees had more post-stress symptoms, possibly because of greater exposure to repetitive threats. Many non-evacuees described to her the eerie sensation of being able to hear the roar of the fires on nearby hills, but unable to pinpoint their location. They also experienced constant reminders of the fire, such as the daily ritual of flashing identification just to be able to cross barricades to their homes.

Although evacuees may have endured a more intense and unexpected level of change in their lives, they may have adjusted to the change more readily than those who could only wait as the fires burned just beyond their homes, says Crouse.

Back in Sem’s Red Cross office, she explains her difficulties of teaching Montanans that metal health problems are real—even for those not evacuated—and that they don’t necessarily manifest in a particular time frame.

“When people are in a stressful situation, and they have been for so long, people are in a fight-or-flight type of situation. They are really in survival mode,” she says. “Some people are handling pre-evacuation warnings very rationally and calmly. Others, maybe because of situations in their life, they’ve developed different coping mechanisms; it affects them very differently over time.”

Crouse agrees with Sem that the psychological effects of wildfires shouldn’t be dismissed, and that it can take months for symptoms to show up.

“One person I interviewed after the summer of 2000 said that as the fog came in in the fall, the person started getting this very freaky feeling again, because it reminded them of the smoke,” says Crouse. “Somebody else says that she happened to be buying a mobile home back at the time, and she said that for months after the fires, every time she looked at the mobile home she thought she saw smoke around it out of the corner of her eye.”

Crouse says that when people are in shock, or disassociating, they aren’t processing everything they are going through. So even as the fire season winds down, Sem’s work is only beginning. The first part of her job is get to people right away so there can be an “immediate defusing” of stress. But once the threats are gone, she’ll spend months knocking on doors and making phone calls. There are hundreds of people she needs to check up on. Sem won’t push, but she’ll make sure that everyone threatened by the 2003 fires knows that the Red Cross offers free and anonymous counseling sessions. She’ll focus on outreach, knowing that people who feel fine now, like the Fitzpatricks, may develop problems later.

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