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.
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.