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Twice Burned: Electra Fire triggers painful memories for Butte Fire Survivors
Trauma expert describes lasting impact of devastating wildfires
Marie-Elena Schembri & Danny Benson, Calaveras Enterprise, July. 21, 2022
The Electra Fire burned 4,478 Acres of hillsides in the Mokelumne River canyon last week, beginning on the afternoon of July 4. The fire ignited in Amador County (the cause remains under investigation) but quickly crossed the river to Calaveras and burned up the canyon walls, threatening homes in the surrounding areas of Mokelumne Hill, Pine Grove, and Glencoe. Evacuation warning areas expanded through West Point and Wilseyville to Rail Road Flat.
For many, this fire evoked fear and painful memories of the devastating Butte Fire of 2015, which followed much the same path as the Electra Fire, only covering a much larger area. Unlike the Butte Fire, Electra was knocked down quickly—reaching 99% containment just 10 days later—thanks to a quick and aggressive response by fire personnel.
Over 2,000 firefighters were on hand to tackle this fire, with 59 crews from all over the foothills and beyond joining the cavalry. As a result, no homes or structures were damaged and only one injury was reported.
In the lines of fire
In contrast, the Butte Fire, which raged for 36 days and grew to 70,868 acres, destroyed 877 homes and businesses and damaged 44 more, according to Cal Fire. Two fatalities and one injury were confirmed as a result of the fire.
In the seven years since the Butte Fire, some have rebuilt. Others have relocated, like Annie Curtis, who lost her family home in Mountain Ranch during the Butte Fire. Then a teenager, Curtis and her mom, Melinda Bissell, evacuated and returned only to clean up the remnants of their home. Now, Curtis lives in a new home in Mokelumne Hill, which she evacuated on July 4, fearing the worst would happen yet again.
Curtis and her fiancé, Charles “CJ” Clark, were returning from a Fourth of July parade to their home on Buckeye Lane when Curtis noticed smoke coming from the canyon behind their property.
“I realized, ‘Oh my god there’s a fire down in the same area again,’” said Curtis.
The couple, who both lost their homes during the Butte Fire, didn’t hesitate to start packing. Curtis described how she entered her home and found her mother sitting calmly inside, shades drawn, watching TV and completely unaware of the threat just down the hill.
“There's smoke, there’s another fire,” Curtis told Bissell, and they began packing while Clark towed the family’s travel trailers down from where they were stored, ready to hit the road at a moment's notice.
“We were just going to decide when, either we see flames coming up over the hill or the sheriff comes up and tells us to go, that’s when we’ll leave,” said Curtis.
The sheriff did come, and let them know the area was being placed under mandatory evacuation orders.
The family evacuated that night to San Andreas, but Curtis and Clark returned the following day after hearing from a neighbor that their road was still accessible. The couple, worried about looters, went back to their home on Buckeye Lane while the fire continued to grow.
Curtis recalls thinking, “Am I coming back to nothing?” But this time, her home was saved, which she says is thanks to the firefighters who “did a beautiful job” protecting the house with back burns and control lines.
Despite coming out unscathed by a second brush with fire, Curtis said the near-disaster “sparked a lot of the anxiety I had before.” Curtis described a sleepless and stressful night after their return home, waking up every few hours “to look out the window to see if fire was coming up over the hillside,” and “anxiety throughout the week” as firefighters battled the fire that reached over 4,000 acres.
“There is a lot of fear and just unknown,” Curtis said.
Fire season stress
Curtis isn’t the only one carrying this kind of fear and worry. Pioneer resident Kat Everitt, who was not directly affected by the Electra or Butte fires, commented on the emotional effects of fire season.
Everitt stated, “Every upcountry elder with mobility challenges truly dreads the very real, and way-too-long 'fire season,’” adding that it can prove “hard to be a normal person inside, with this all looming in reality, for months and months, year after year!”
Emotional stress caused by wildfires is common for those directly or indirectly impacted.
A 2021 study by researchers at the University of San Diego found that “direct exposure to large scale fires significantly increased the risk for mental health disorders, particularly for PTSD and depression.”
PTSD, or post-traumatic stress disorder, is often the result of direct and indirect exposure to these events, according to the study.
The U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs’ National Center for PTSD states that “almost everyone has symptoms in the immediate aftermath” of a fire, which can include “distress, fear, and anger.” Additionally, “Disaster survivors may find it hard to stop thinking about what happened, have trouble sleeping, or feel keyed up or on edge.”
Micheal McCratic, a Murphys-based professional therapist and trauma expert, has seen firsthand the emotional turmoil that large fires like the Butte Fire can inflict. McCratic sees patients at his office in Murphys and online, and has helped clients who lived through disasters like the Butte Fire and Camp Fire in Paradise. He says the Butte Fire often comes up in conversations.
McCratic explained, “If you’ve had numerous times of a possibility of a fire burning down your home, or you've actually had events where you’ve had experiences with fire, where you’ve lost a home…odds are, you’re going to have issues around the fire.”
McCratic describes trauma as a “log jam” of information—thoughts, feelings, and images—that happens when events “overload the neurological and physiological system.” Exposure to a traumatic event like a wildfire can create feelings of lack of control, powerlessness, helplessness, and being unsafe. It can also lead to feelings of responsibility, says McCratic, like feeling that there may have been something you could have done better or differently to prevent the outcome.
These emotions and associated thoughts, or “negative cognitions,” are “stored dysfunctionally” and get “stuck in your system.” Then, an event spurs the same feelings, and “anxiety and panic starts to happen, triggering stuff in the present because of past experiences,” McCratic said.
Butte Fire survivor Curtis has twice faced losing her home and has experienced this phenomenon, saying “another fire [and] smoke in the air can trigger that feeling again.”
Resiliency, and when to seek help
Despite the stress, Curtis believes that living through the traumatic experience of losing her home prepared her to be ready this time, saying it “paved the way to do it better, a second chance to do things the right way.”
This type of resilience or “ability to recover quickly and adapt well in the face of adversities,” can help fire survivors like Curtis curb trauma-related mental illness, according to the UC San Diego study.
The study found that “self-reported resilience had a positive effect on mental health, and mindfulness was associated with significantly lower depression and anxiety symptoms.”
McCratic has a more organic definition of resiliency, which he says is a “sense of feeling powerful in life,” which enables a person to “move things forward” and take care of themselves.
McCratic says that the more positive cognitions or beliefs you have, the more resilient you’ll become.
But, sometimes, resiliency isn’t enough. If you are experiencing stress or symptoms of trauma or PTSD because of a fire, there are tools you can utilize to help manage your symptoms.
The first thing a person should do following a traumatic event is to talk about it, says McCratic. This should include facts about what happened, feelings about it and interpretations of what was experienced. By identifying what negative cognitions a person has about an event and what the truth actually is, they can prevent stuck feelings (or trauma) from happening.
Other ways to beat trauma include taking care of yourself, according to McCratic. This includes giving yourself “a little extra time to do things,” sleeping, eating, exercising, and giving yourself “a lot of grace.”
McCratic also recommends breathing exercises and relaxation techniques such as listening to guided videos on YouTube, as well as “anything you can do to help you engage more of your frontal cortex.” This can include tasks that require intense focus, like saying the alphabet backward or solving math problems.
Additionally, McCratic recommends getting away for a few days, if possible, when a fire is close by, and having preparations done ahead of time in case of an emergency or triggering event. If these things aren’t helping, trauma specialists like McCratic have special techniques that they use to help move those “stuck” emotions and thoughts.
McCratic utilizes eye movement desensitization and reprocessing (EMDR) and image transformation therapy (ImTT) to treat trauma and PTSD in his private practice as a Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist. Both of these techniques work at “processing feelings out of the system,” says McCratic.
For more information on PTSD, visit ptsd.va.gov. For tips on wildfire preparedness, visit readyforwildfire.org.