Over the past week, the news media has been focused on one of the worst natural disasters to ever hit the United States. The California wildfires have burned land, destroyed homes, and killed innumerable people. Rich and poor, the famous and the unknown – no one in the area has been spared from the devastation.
In the short time these fires have been burning, they have become the deadliest in the history of California. Already there have been 81 confirmed deaths and there are still almost 900 people missing and not accounted for. It’s likely that the death toll will continue to climb. That’s in addition to the 250,000 acres of land that have destroyed, including over 18,000 buildings, of which at least 13,000 are people’s personal homes.
The good news is that the fires are about 80% contained at this point and rain is on its way. That extra water should help to extinguish the flames. But it is also expected that they will cause devastating mudslides that will only add to the damage and potentially the deaths that these people have had to suffer.
The victims of this disaster range from those who have died and their immediate loved ones, those who were trapped and found a way out or were rescued, those who were able to get away but lost their homes and belongings, those who were in the path but somehow were spared the worst of the damage, those who rushed in to help fight the fires, those who came to help the people who were without homes or food because of the fires, and those who have witnessed the devastation from afar on television and other media reports.
While it’s clear that the people in each of these groups have suffered very different degrees of trauma, the reality is that all of them could suffer long term effects and Post Traumatic Stress from their exposure to this natural disaster.
As I have discussed in my blog about mass shootings, whenever we face catastrophes and traumas, we can become affected by them whether we are physically present or not. Modern media gives us a constant source of graphic images and information. Social media lets us see and hear the real time horror from cameras right in the middle of the devastation just like if we were really there. Our brains just can’t tell the difference. The repeated exposure can have lasting effects and leave us suffering from anxiety, depression, and PTSD.
For those hit personally, it is clear that the trauma is difficult to overstate. Everything they own, friends and loved ones are all gone, consumed by the fire’s blaze. The fear of being trapped, not being sure if they would make it out alive. The guilt of surviving when others didn’t. These are all things that can only truly be understood by those who have been through something similar.
And, while we hold up the firefighters and humanitarian workers as heroes for stepping up and helping, we often forget that are affected too. These amazing people chose to run toward the danger and the chaos so that they could help save others. By putting themselves in harm’s way, they expose themselves to the same traumas and PTSD as those who are victims of the fires.
No matter how you may have been affected by the disaster – whether you were there or knew someone who was, if you ran to the fire as a rescuer or watched it on TV, if you’re feeling anxious or depressed, if you can’t sleep or stop thinking about the fires, it’s important that you reach out for help. You can find resources and more information about the importance of therapy here.