‘None of us will ever be the same’: Survivors of 2017 Tubbs Fire face long-term trauma [Sacramento Bee]


By Panchalay Chalermkraivuth, August 2, 2019, Sacramento Bee

Robert “Priest” Morgan hasn’t slept without a cocktail of pills since the night he says God kicked him in the head to wake him up – the night he opened the front door of his Santa Rosa mobile home to see a fire engine, a few people running up and down Sahara Street and screaming.

“The sky looked like the Fourth of July,” he said. “The entire park except for my street was an inferno.”

It wasn’t Independence Day – it was Oct. 9, 2017, and the Tubbs Fire had broken the Santa Rosa city limits.

But last November, when smoke from the Camp Fire blew into Santa Rosa from 150 miles away, Morgan got into his car and bolted.

He’d considered himself a tough man – and looked the part, too, with slicked-back hair, a sleeve of tattoos and a thick, neat mustache – but the Tubbs Fire broke him.

“I went full-blown PTSD, I panicked – I ran as fast and as far as I could. And the only thing I could think of was to go someplace where there were no fires.”

He roamed around Northern California, frantic and aimless, but the fire was inescapable, the omnipresent subject of gas station conversations and TV newsreels.

Finally, he headed to San Francisco International Airport and bought a ticket to Minneapolis, where winter was already entrenched. He checked himself into a hotel, holed up indoors by day and wandered around in freezing cold weather by night.

He now lives in Wisconsin with his ex-wife. “(The counselor) I’m working with said, ‘You’ve been hit so hard by this, you go back where fires happen on a regular basis and it’s gonna happen all over again,” he said.

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Death was on Dorothy Hughes’ mind, too: “It’s like they’re waiting for us to die so they don’t have to deal with us anymore,” she said. “Quite frankly I have lost hope.”

Debbie Mason, CEO of the Sonoma County Healthcare Foundation, said she has personally handed fliers for the Foundation-funded Wildfire Mental Health Collaborative to Journey’s End residents. But the post-disaster dispersal means that resources are difficult to distribute and outreach happens person by person.

Neither Gilman nor Hughes had heard about or received post-disaster counseling, although they both described hampered mental landscapes. “I’m so stressed out I can’t think,” Hughes said.

“None of us will ever be the same people we were,” Gilman said.

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Thank you Karen,  Most people don’t understand this kind of PTSD. My sister lost her home in Journey’s End and everything she owned. She got out out with her life and two of her three cats. Poor little “Betty” died in the fire. My sister now lives in Minnesota. 

There was a fire (actually many over the last few weeks) in a wooded area here in Lake County, where 67% of our county has burned. When some people, new to the area, were told to pack a bag and get out they scoffed at the suggestion saying it was ludicrous. They were lucky, and the wind didn’t shift the fire in their direction. 

One thing people need to understand is that these fires are not the same as they used to be. They are a completely different animal, out of control. Maybe due to climate change or something else. It doesn’t matter whether we believe in climate change, the point is they are much more devastating and harder to gain a footing on. 

After the fires in the cities of Redding, Santa Rosa, and Beverly Hills etc we know that they can and do burn cities. Who knew a fire could jump more than 6 lanes of freeway and burn into the “concrete jungle” of Coffee Park, but they do and it did.

Don’t scoff at the idea that you’re safe because you live in a town or city. Recent history and current conditions are obvious that none of us are safe from this new type of fire. 

Be smart and be prepared. Whether it is a fire or an earthquake have your important papers ready to go. If you live in an exceptionally vulnerable area for fire, like I do, keep a bag packed as well. Have a plan for escape and a plan to stay in touch with loved ones. It just isn’t worth not being prepared. Ask anyone who was lucky enough to make it out of Paradise from the Camp Fire.

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