"All the leaves are burned, and the sky is gray."
— Farhad Manjoo, California-based New York Times columnist
I was grimly amused, but I managed not to react when my step-granddaughter — we’ll call her Allison — said, with all sincerity, “I’ve never seen a fire like this in my whole life.” She was 11 at the time.
Glued to the television in her small rural house on an October morning in 2017, we followed reports of the Tubbs fire as it destroyed 2,900 homes and multiple businesses and public facilities in the nearby city of Santa Rosa, California. Outside, the sky was a weird brownish-gray color, and huge ashes from the blaze were covering Allison’s yard. The fire eventually burned itself out 10 miles from her home.
In my considerably longer lifetime, I had seen, and been quite close to, a fire like the one that dismayed Allison. Twenty-six years earlier (1991), I was living near Oakland when a firestorm broke out in the East Bay Hills, taking 25 lives and destroying 3,280 dwellings. A similar fire destroyed 640 structures in the same, but less-developed East Bay Hills in 1923. Those fires followed a “normal” pattern — they were decades apart.
But that was before the climate changed, and California got hotter and drier. Now the “fire season” is year-round, and massive wildfires are a constant threat in most of the state.
The November after Allison’s first frightening fire experience, the Camp Fire obliterated the Northern California town of Paradise. That particular inferno’s copious smoke darkened the skies over Santa Rosa, 100 miles away, even as residents rebuilt their homes lost to the Tubbs fire.
This October’s Kincade fire, exploding in the dry hills 30 miles north of Santa Rosa, forced more than 225,000 people to evacuate rural and even distant coastal communities and much of Santa Rosa itself. Simultaneously energy supplier Pacific Gas and Electric shut off the power to 2 million customers in the region — hoping to prevent even more fires but also adding significantly to the overall havoc.
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Three years, three menacing conflagrations in Northern California alone. Everyone within striking distance of the fires has been traumatized — especially the children.
Children depend on their parents to provide security, and by doing so to make them feel safe. If a child raised in a secure environment lives through a single natural disaster that she and her family survive relatively unscathed, the lasting psychological effect probably will be minimal. Hundreds of thousands of today’s adults survived a hurricane, tornado or earthquake in their childhood. They’ve got stories to tell, but most of them do not live in a state of constant dread or suffer from PTSD.
But if a child’s world is frequently threatening or chaotic — and especially if it’s clear that her parents have little or no control over the situation — she could experience deep, existential anxiety. Even if she tries to conceal her angst, symptoms can appear — nightmares, loss of appetite, poor grades.
We’ve learned that adult intervention can help a child’s psychological recovery from a single traumatic event — even something like a school shooting. Psychologists, ministers and parents can help children face and dissipate their fears.
But what can I tell Allison?
There probably won’t be another fire in your lifetime? Your future is bright and secure?
I’d be lying. And she’d know it.
As a young adolescent, she also knows that the world is bigger than Santa Rosa, and it’s on fire everywhere.
I guess I could tell her that life’s tough, and she should just buck up — as if that would assuage her nascent PTSD.
Or, maybe I should just try to empower her by encouraging her to raise Hades about climate change at our ecological house.
Philip S. Wenz is the author of the E-book Your Ecological House, available at all major electronic book distributors.