The Camp Fire in Northern California is finally contained more than two weeks after it first broke out. It was the deadliest fire in the state’s history, and the toll continues to climb. At least 88 people were killed. More than 200 people are still missing and unaccounted for.
Reports claim more than 9,800 homes have been destroyed by the fire, largely in Paradise, a town of 27,000. Also gone are 366 commercial buildings, and a third of the town’s schools. That means 80-90% of the town is gone – obliterated in less than one day.
The risk of fire has always been present in the forested area, high in the Sierra foothills and surrounded by canyons on two sides. The town has experienced at least four evacuations due to fire in 10 years. Close to 200 homes were lost in 2008 fires. But this was a worst-case scenario.
People have nowhere to live. Not only have they lost their homes to the fire, but they’ve lost their places of employment and their children have nowhere to go to school. Their community is, for many intents and purposes, gone. It has burned to the ground.
Much of the population of Paradise are working-class folks, who live paycheck to paycheck, and retirees, who had planned to live out their days in a modest but comfortable home nestled among pine trees.
As well as dealing with the emotional loss, residents have to face the logistical challenges of suddenly becoming homeless and having their homes destroyed.
Natural disasters are one of the often overlooked, but psychologically (and physically, financially, socially) devastating types of trauma. These types of experiences are particularly insidious because they tend to traumatise large populations of people at once, and can result in epidemics of Survivor Guilt and other PTSD symptoms.
Like many causes of trauma, natural disasters can be sudden and overwhelming. The most immediate and typical reaction to a calamity is shock. This gives way to a range of upsetting emotions, including anxiety, guilt or depression; a constant sense of being in danger; and an unfiltered collection of disturbing and terrifying memories.
The residents of Paradise have experienced a devastating loss. But what does their experience have to say to us about trauma?
Without question, the most traumatic experience in my life was the death of my son, Adam, to suicide. Suicide is also a devastating loss. The experience of suicide survivors is comparable to people who have suffered from the unchecked power of a raging wildfire.
To provide context for suicide’s aftermath we will reference Barbara Kingsolver’s new novel Unsheltered. The book is divided into two narratives 150 years apart that play out in a house that is structurally unsound. Our interest is in the experiences of the current occupants.
The book opens in 2016 when 50-something journalist Willa Knox inherits the collapsing homestead. Willa’s life is threatening to fall apart too. She has been made redundant from her magazine editorship and must now try and scrape a living as a freelance writer. Her academic husband, Iano, has lost tenure at the university where he was a professor and has been forced to take a temporary teaching position at a second-rate college.
The dilapidated house is also home to her ailing and cantankerous Greek father-in-law and her two grown children: her stubborn, free-spirited daughter, Tig, and her dutiful debt-ridden, ivy educated son, Zeke.
Zeke recently lost his partner Helene to suicide following the birth of their unplanned for son Aldus. The aftermath of Helene’s suicide brings the trauma of loss into sharp focus.
Whatever the context, traumatic experiences need to be taken seriously. The thoughts that follow address some of what we need to know to survive a traumatic experience.
1. Traumatic experiences change the landscape of your life
This is the stark reality for residents of the forest town of Paradise, destroyed by the worst wildfire California has ever seen. A Paradise council member said, “I felt like I was living in a bad dream. It was unrecognizable. I had to keep asking, ‘Where am I? All the landmarks are gone.’”
While the destruction of Paradise was observable, the feelings of devastation experienced by those who lose a loved one to suicide are often hidden and internalized. But the loss is real and the suddenness of events leaves the grief-stricken friend or family member disorientated and confused.
As Willa, Zeke’s mother, observed,
“The sun through the window washed his face in an unmerciful light that rendered him old. Or worn, like old clothes. Not young enough to be her son.
A new parent should be joyful. Not widowed, deserted, bankrupt, bereft of every comfort he’d carefully built for himself. For months to come, waking up would feel as violent for Zeke as for a newborn. Maybe for years.”
2. Traumatic experiences leave you feeling totally overwhelmed
Most often, traumatic experiences involve a threat to a person’s life or safety, but any event that leaves someone feeling alone and overwhelmed can be considered traumatic.
The residents of Paradise not only feared for their safety but were overwhelmed by the intensity of the fire and the damage it was inflicting. A report in The Washington Post said,
“The city is in ruins, leaving most residents who survived without homes and business, a community that has all but disappeared.”
Zeke felt overwhelmed as he reviewed the events that led to the discovery of Helene’s body in the bedroom. On returning home from work he found the baby crying and in need of a nappy change. He thought Helene was sleeping. It was only after feeding the baby that he ventured into the bedroom and found Helene lying on the bed. She had taken a drug overdose. Zeke was critical of himself for not checking on her earlier.
When Zeke phoned his mother with the news that Helene had taken her life he struggled to control his emotions. We read
“She listened to Zeke’s breathing as it caught in a sob, tried and caught again, like a halting engine. ‘We didn’t talk about that, Mom,’ he managed. ‘When the subject of death came up, it was me telling her not to do it.’
This reasonable, desperately sad man on the phone was the bare wood of her son beneath the bark.”
3. Traumatic experiences tempt you to play the ‘blame game’
Blaming is a coping mechanism. It can be a way of avoiding taking responsibility for a situation. It can also be a form of escapism, a justification for not dealing with the issue.
The residents of Paradise, in Butte County, can’t be held responsible for the fire that destroyed their city but they are justified in demanding that the cause of the Camp Fire be made public. As yet there is no determination on what caused the fire.
President Donald Trump was quick to apportion blame. He inferred the disaster could have been avoided with better forest management. He was widely condemned for his simplistic assessment of the causes and for his insensitivity toward those working to minimise the damage.
When Willa realizes the implications of Helene’s death for her son she is quick to apportion blame but it is not directed at him. ‘It couldn’t be Zeke’s fault.’
But Zeke felt responsible for letting Helene go off the antidepressants. He says,
“I shouldn’t have let her. Nobody should have asked her to do that.”
“Don’t blame yourself. The drugs were not your call. There must have been risks to the baby.”
Instead, Willa vents her anger at Helene. We read
“Her dutiful, promising son would be taking care of a child now, every day, marooned in the loneliness of single parenthood. Anger at the dead Helene rose like acid in her throat. So useless.”
4. Traumatic experiences help you clarify what is important in life
It is often the testimony of people who have survived a catastrophic wildfire event to say, “At least we are alive and the pets are safe.” Their house and possessions may be gone but they have life and it has priority over all else.
Since the disaster began in Paradise, local government officials have emphasized the commitment to rebuilding the town, even though its location means that fire is always a risk.
Federal officials have warned the county, the town can’t be built the way it was. It will mean constructing safer, more modern buildings with fire-resistant roofs, and perhaps looking at how the forests are managed.
The comments of one resident, Jerry Garcia, epitomizes the resilience of the community He says,
“We lost everything. The fire took away all that we had but it has not taken our souls and that’s all that really counts. That’s why we’re going back.”
‘Crisis is opportunity.’ Willa realises her destitute son needs a place to live. She also accepts that he will need her support in caring for his infant son. It falls to them to explain to Aldus, at the appropriate time, why his mother took her life. Willa says,
“The child would need to love his mother, and it was all on them, forever. ‘Helene wasn’t thinking right. We know that now.’”