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Mental Health at Risk as California Wildfire Threat Grows


A home burns in a wildfire in Santa Clarita, California, on October 24, 2019.
Mental Health at Risk as California Wildfire Threat Grows
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Tasha Ritza lost her house, her job and her hometown on the day that a wildfire destroyed Paradise, California. A year later, life is still hard, she said.

“I’m at a loss. I deal with a lot of anxiety. I can’t figure out if I want to stay, if I want to go,” she told the Thomson Reuters Foundation. “I haven’t worked in a year.

“In a day it was all taken from me, and it’s not getting any easier,” said Ritza. She ran a kitchen in one of the Paradise public schools before the fire. She has since moved to the nearby city of Chico.

California communities like Paradise are haunted by wildfire losses and new fire threats. The damage goes beyond the physical. Anxiety, depression and other mental health disorders are spreading.

“This whole county has PTSD, depression,” said Michele Evans, a young mother who worked at a dance school in Paradise before the fire.

The wildfire that burned through the northern California town in November 2018 was the deadliest in state history. It killed 85 people.

Terrified townspeople fled burning homes and left their cars on blocked streets. They ran through fire on the main roadway to escape the mountain town.

Today only 10 percent of the 27,000 people who once lived in Paradise remain. The fire destroyed almost 18,800 structures -- more than half of them homes.

Some people moved to the nearby mountain community of Magalia. Others went to nearby cities such as Chico and Sacramento. But many went much farther.

California has long suffered seasonal wildfires. Scientists say longer dry seasons and more powerful winds are making the fires much more destructive.

FILE - Neighbors comfort each other after the Camp Fire in Paradise, California, U.S. November 22, 2018. (REUTERS/Elijah Nouvelage)
FILE - Neighbors comfort each other after the Camp Fire in Paradise, California, U.S. November 22, 2018. (REUTERS/Elijah Nouvelage)


Anxiety, depression

Rebecca Schmidt is a researcher at the University of California, Davis. She studies mental health among pregnant women during wildfires.

“The most commonly reported symptom even a year later was stress and anxiety,” she said. That included sleeplessness, pain, difficulty doing mental tasks and depression.

“It’s even more worrisome when communities are disrupted, like Paradise. A lot of them lost their support system,” she said.

The losses can affect a person’s mental health for a long time, she added.

“The feeling of not being safe affects the mental health of people all around, and it’s a long-term thing,” she said.

In Sonoma County, the Kincade fire burned almost 32,400 hectares this month. Officials there may call a vote on a proposed sales tax increase to pay for mental health services.

County officials also recently declared a climate emergency in an effort to make climate risks a top issue in deciding policy.

One way to ease the mental effects of a disaster is to have survivors help other survivors, said Janet Leisen. Her home in the northern California city of Santa Rosa burned in a 2017 wildfire.

During the Kincade fire, she and other Santa Rosa locals who lost homes traveled to Healdsburg, a city in Sonoma County. The Santa Rosa group worked with a local assistance center, offering support and advice on recovering and rebuilding.

“As a victim, we know that it’s difficult to talk to people who haven’t been there,” Liesen said.

Jessie Mercer is an art therapist who lived in Paradise. She said her sadness helped her create a “Phoenix” sculpture, built from the keys of burned homes.

The sculpture was presented at a gathering in Paradise earlier this month to mark the one-year anniversary of the fire.

At the event, Mercer said, “I brought us home, even if just for today.”

I’m Caty Weaver.

Reuters reported this story. Caty Weaver adapted it for VOA Learning English. Ashley Thompson was the editor.

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Words in This Story

anxiety - n. fear or nervousness about what might happen​

figure out - phrasal v. to understand or find (something, such as a reason or a solution) by thinking​

haunt - v. to keep coming back to the mind of (someone) especially in a way that makes the person sad or upset​

symptom - n. a change in the body or mind which indicates that a disease is present​

stress - n. a state of mental tension and worry caused by problems in your life, work, etc.​

disrupt - v. to cause (something) to be unable to continue in the normal way​

therapist - n. a person trained in methods of treating illnesses especially without the use of drugs or surgery​

sculpture - n. a piece of art that is made by carving or molding clay, stone, metal, etc.​

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