As wildfires rage elsewhere, students who rode out Carr Fire here are reliving trauma

Nada Atieh Redding Record SearchlightPublished 9:00 AM EDT Sep 21, 2020As wildfires ravage communities across

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As wildfires ravage communities across the West, Bella Saari wakes up in a panic and checks her phone every few minutes to see if any fires have gotten closer to French Gulch.

Bella Saari is a Shasta High School freshman who found herself in the middle of the Carr Fire two years ago.

Her bags are packed and her dog’s leash and cat carriers are within arm’s reach. She is prepared to evacuate her house if the fires get too close, she said. When the flames from the Carr Fire spread to her neighborhood, she and her mother, Maureen Saari, fled their house to French Gulch-Whiskeytown Elementary School and kept it open for firefighters.

The Saari’s didn’t lose their home in the fire but watched it creep up their driveway in horror. They came close enough to the flames to develop what they say are PTSD-like symptoms.

With smoke engulfing the skies, the Saari’s, like other wildfire survivors, find themselves in a state of hyper-vigilance once again. Maureen Saari is on edge, constantly checking her phone to monitor the distance of the fire from her home. Sometimes, she imagines hearing the sirens in the distance and grows impatient and irritable quickly.

Although the fires are burning in faraway counties, Maureen Saari is cruising in fight or flight mode, she said.  

“I don’t have a lot of patience when it’s smoky out. I just think about the necessities,” Maureen added.

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Some Carr Fire survivors are anxiously preparing for an evacuation notice as they watch fires burn in neighboring counties. Students, who were evacuated during the fire or who had family evacuated, are distracted in class, scrutinizing the skies and the direction of the winds, or they are out of sight while distance learning and difficult to reach. 

Memories of the Carr Fire remain fresh

Bella takes the bus to Shasta High while holding her breath. If fire were to reach Redding, she worries that the roads will close and she won’t be able to get home, she said.

“And I know a lot of people who couldn’t get back in to save their animals when the Carr Fire started. And I know that my mom would definitely need my help if there was another fire,” she added. “The Carr Fire moved really fast. We didn’t think it would go all the way around, but it did.”

The Carr Fire started on July 23, 2018 near Carr Powerhouse Road inside Whiskeytown National Recreation Area off Highway 299. Sparks from a trailer's wheel rim scraped the pavement after a tire blowout, igniting the fire.

The fire escaped control and exacted most of its heavy toll on July 26. It destroyed the town of Keswick, much of Shasta and neighborhoods in west Redding and Lake Redding Estates. The deaths of eight people, three of whom were firefighters, were linked to the fire and more than 1,000 homes were destroyed. About 40,000 people were evacuated.

The French Gulch-Whiskeytown Elementary did not sustain damages in the Carr Fire, but it was in the evacuation zone. Most families and kids who attend the school were evacuated but remember watching the fire burn through their neighborhoods. 

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Kids at French Gulch-Whiskeytown Elementary today are more distracted and fearful, said fifth- through eighth-grade teacher Renay Hill. On the two on-campus school days, teachers are making time to explain the fires are not directly in and around French Gulch, she said.

COVID-19 leaves grieving students isolated

Prior to the coronavirus pandemic, when students were having a hard time, they could see a counselor in school and talk to their teachers and friends. This year, students are at home isolated most of the time.

Oftentimes their grief and trauma go unnoticed by adults, marriage and family psychotherapist Lynn Fritz said. It’s common to overlook the emotional and psychological impact on kids.

“You have to really seek them out. Spend quiet time with them, ask,” Fritz said. “We all distract ourselves with movies and television. Spend time eating, playing board and card games, talking. Show some vulnerability. Tell them 'it freaks me out.' You role model being vulnerable.”

Every chance they get, students peek out the windows at the smoke and track changes, said art teacher at French Gulch-Whiskeytown Ember Swan. 

“We have to explain that it’s not threatening us right now. It’s just the smoke that is settling over from the fires that are nearby. It brings up a little bit of PTSD experience for us,” she said. “The kids are very cognizant that fire can change very quickly and with our situation, the fire came through three times. Even though almost all the children were evacuated, some of their family members didn’t leave and were here.”

Teachers have tracked the progress of the smoke with their students to predict how the situation could change with the winds and are trying to empower students to help wildfire victims.

“We want to make them feel like they have some power to help someone else maybe in all of this by talking about how people from other communities have donated to our school. That way students and families can think about what we can do,” Swan said.

Cloudy skies and panic created by the wildfires bring back experiential memories, flashbacks, and anxiety to people who were affected by the Carr Fire, Fritz said. They stay hypervigilant and alert, in survival mode and can’t shut that off. It’s a defense mechanism and these emotional responses to the environment are typical, said Fritz.

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When the mind is alert, the body will respond by excessive sweating, a rapid heartbeat and elevated blood pressure and fast, shallow breathing, leading people to grow extremely fatigued quickly, according to Depression Alliance, a nonprofit that campaigns to end the stigma associated with depression and to raise awareness of what it means to live with it.

“That takes a toll on the body and on relationships,” Fritz said.

There are several strategies Fritz teaches clients in her practice to overcome anxiety.

  • Meditation: closing one’s eyes and taking deep, deliberate, slow breaths throughout the day when feeling anxious and limiting exposure to media, especially watching fires and trauma. “Do that for 3 to 5 minutes, morning, noon, night,” Fritz said.
  • Painting emotions: She also recommends clients get in touch with what they’re feeling and assign colors to their emotions. Put them on paper with paint and drawings.
  • Journaling: Write the emotions you experience. Expressing them on paper will relieve your body. 

“If you’re dealing with a broken leg, you develop a treatment plan. When you feel overwhelmed and can’t go through daily functions or experience high levels of anxiety and are unable to do daily life, reach out to a therapist and form a plan," she said. "The body is very faithful, it will eventually shut down.”

Before the wildfires began, people were already vigilant about contracting COVID-19 and concerned about intense national protests that have been dominating political discourse ahead of the 2020 presidential election.

“Think of the trauma caused by the Carr Fire in the same way as a thousand-pound weight you are burdened to carry,” Fritz said. “If you’re carrying a thousand pounds and adding on another thousand pounds, how’s that going to work? How are you going to feel?”

This teacher still can't forget

Paranoid since fire danger has been high, eighth grade teacher at Shasta Lake's Gateway Community Day School, Michelle Harrington, runs outside her front door when she thinks she hears warning calls cautioning people to evacuate their homes.

She won’t wear ear plugs to sleep and won’t let her husband wear them either so they don’t risk missing an evacuation call or a bang on the door from police in the middle of the night.

“I would think I hear sirens or a knock and I would run to the front door, run outside and make sure everything is OK,” Harrington said.

Harrington lost her home in the Land Park neighborhood and, after living in three rentals over the last two years, moved into her newly constructed house in May. She says she's grateful she has the few items she thought to save in the Carr Fire but at the same time can't help but grieve what was lost.

It saddens her that her daughter, a college student in Reno, won't get to pass on her childhood treasures to her own children. She doesn't mind the smoky skies and hazy outdoor setting since she knows where the fires are burning. It's the smell of smoke that sets her off, she said.

“Here’s the hard thing about the trauma of it: It’s trying to continue on with your life while rebuilding it at the same time. Everyone says that it’s just stuff you lose and that’s true. But all that stuff is your life story and you hold on to it because it has meaning to you. I would give all my new stuff up to have my daughter’s ultrasound picture,” Harrington said.

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Every night in her new home, Harrington goes to bed knowing where her purse and car keys are. There’s a pair of shoes near her bed and a go bag with important paperwork and the cat carriers near her shoes as well.

“I think what I’m really afraid of is I have so few items from that part of my life that I was able to get out that if I was to lose those things now I would be devastated. I don’t know what I would do. I think that makes me more paranoid. Those things are more precious now. They are not just things, they are things I thought to save,” she said.

Working at the school distracts her, she added. At Gateway Community, teachers and students are strictly distance learning so Harrington can’t gauge if her kids are struggling with the wildfires burning in California.

Only one student reached out to her because she was scared. Harrington had her track the fires to see how far they are from Shasta Lake.

"That’s all I could do," she said. “She just needed someone to tell her 'it’s far away, you don’t need to worry about it.'”

Nada Atieh is a Report For America corps member and education reporter focusing on childhood trauma and the achievement gap for the Redding Record Searchlight. Help local journalism thrive by subscribing today!
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