Wildfires, like the 2018 Woolsey fire, fuel mental health fears and stress alongside paths of devastation

“Wildfires are occurring with increasing frequency and severity each year, and each year their impacts on people become clearer. However very little is understood about how wildfires affect mental health.” – from a UCLA-led research report released this week.

They moved into Charley’s old place on my cul- de-sac a few months before the Woolsey fire in 2018 – a nice, middle-aged couple with a young daughter who played with all the kids in the neighborhood.

They moved out this past March. They didn’t want to leave, they loved the neighborhood, but mentally, they just couldn’t take another wildfire season in California, they said.

A sign thanking firefighters still hangs near the Dan Blocker beach in Malibu, CA June 25, 2019. (Photo by David Crane, Los Angeles Daily News/SCNG)

They had barely finished unpacking, and settling into their new home in 2018 when they were ordered to evacuate immediately. Welcome to the neighborhood. A wildfire was headed our way.

They were sitting in their car in a supermarket parking lot when the flames jumped the 101 freeway at 2 a.m. at our off-ramp. It was a coin flip which way the swirling, howling Santa Ana winds would take them.

If they blew east, we’d all lose our homes. If they blew west, they’d destroy someone else’s home and dreams. They blew south into Malibu. Again.

“Thank God,” I said, feeling no guilt, just immense relief. I still had a house. When the smoke cleared weeks later, 1,643 families didn’t.

All the neighbors gathered in the middle of the cul-de-sac when we were allowed back in, eager to talk about where we had gone and how close we had come to losing our homes. The air was still thick with smoke.

“Does this happen often?” the new couple asked. We all laughed, nervously. Often enough to be worried every time the Santa Anas blow, we said, trying to downplay the truth. It was happening way too often.

They were still living in the neighborhood in 2020, the largest wildfire year recorded in California modern history. If that wasn’t bad enough, all the reports said 2021 could be even worse.

That was it, they had enough. They put their house on the market, and had three offers the first day. We threw them a party, wished them luck, and said our goodbyes. They both could work remotely in their jobs, and they’d home school their daughter until they found a place they could call home, without the stress of wildfires every year. They were thinking Colorado would be nice. It would be an adventure, they told their little girl. It turned out to be a nightmare.

They were barely out of LA County when their daughter burst into tears in the back seat. Couldn’t they just turn around and go back, she begged? Maybe there won’t be more fires. She didn’t want to leave her friends, her home.

It broke her heart, but it was too late, her mother said. Their house wasn’t theirs anymore. The trip went downhill from there. All the places they wanted to visit as possible future homes were major disappointments.

“We sunk into this depression,” she said a few weeks ago, coming back for a visit to the old neighborhood, and to let her daughter play with her friends. “There were days none of us wanted to get out of bed. We knew we had made a mistake.”

The woman who had bought their house asked if they’d like to see what she had done with it? That was a mistake. They liked nothing she had done to the place.

They were just going to be in town for a few days before heading back to Colorado. They had found a place in a small town just outside of Boulder. It was nice, but smaller than they wanted, and there were no kids for her daughter to play with.

“We’ll see,” she said, giving everyone a hug, as her husband went around shaking hands. Then, they were gone. It was sad. They had traded in one stress for another, losing the home they loved in the process.

“We need more research to understand the effects of these experiences as the threat of wildfires becomes more severe,” the UCLA-led report found.

They can start in my neighborhood.

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