3 years later, wildfire survivors in Southern Oregon are still recovering from trauma
Three years after the 2020 fires devastated communities in Southern Oregon, survivors are still recovering from the fires' impact on their homes, their stability and their mental health. A local long-term recovery group is helping support residents who've experienced trauma.
Three years ago on Sept. 8, the Almeda and South Obenchain fires started and quickly spread in Southern Oregon. The fires destroyed thousands of homes, including more than 1,000 mobile homes. The Almeda Fire in particular was one of the most destructive wildfires in Oregon’s recorded history, devastating the towns of Talent and Phoenix.
Wildfire survivors in the Rogue Valley are still recovering from the long-lasting impact of these fires on their lives. Some whose homes were burnt still haven’t settled into new permanent housing — and news came earlier this summer that dozens of modular homes intended for Almeda Fire survivors in Phoenix were uninhabitable and would need to be rebuilt before residents could move in. On top of that, people continue to recover from losses of financial security, of their neighborhood and community as they knew it, and from the impact on their mental health.
Supporting wildfire survivors in their ongoing trauma recovery is one of the priorities of the Jackson County Community Long-Term Recovery Group. It was formed after the Almeda and South Obenchain fires to coordinate local support for residents after the initial disaster response ended. Its work has focused on things like housing recovery, disaster case management, volunteer organizing, and emotional and spiritual care.
Christina Kukuk, the group’s community resilience program manager, heads its emotional and spiritual care work. She’s also an ordained pastor with the United Church of Christ, and serves as a community chaplain. She joined OPB’s Jenn Chávez to talk more about the ways trauma shows up for wildfire survivors, the mental health support and community care they’ve gotten, and the significance of marking anniversaries of disasters like the 2020 fires.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Jenn Chávez: One of the biggest impacts wildfire can have on a community is displacement and ongoing housing insecurity. Another part of your long-term recovery group focuses on housing support. Are there many people in Jackson County who are still displaced from the 2020 fires? And what effect does not having stable housing have on people’s mental health?
Christina Kukuk: Oh, yes. There are many people still in what we would call transitional housing. Usually in the phases of a disaster response, the first one is emergency housing. After that is transitional housing, and that’s the many places people can be until they are home, until they are settled in the home that they’ll continue to recover from, their permanent home, as the case may be. I think most survivors move something like six times after a natural disaster, in that initial response and the transitional housing period. There’s so many reasons for that, but we have many, many survivors in RVs, still doubled up with other family, in hotel rooms that have been converted to temporary housing. There are many people still not home yet.
The impact is huge. Moving is one of the top stressful events a person can go through in their life when all the conditions are good. When that’s coupled with the loss and the deep grief and the trauma of surviving a wildfire, that’s just compounded. There’s the material loss of all the familiar items that people have, and there’s also layers on top of that: the loss of community, the loss of identity, the loss of what you thought your future would be. There’s the loss of memories, things that connected you to your family and your past and your history. We have a lot of survivors talk about how they miss their neighborhood, they miss their community, and many not knowing where their former neighbors are, still.
Chávez: There’s lots of visceral, immediate trauma in the aftermath of a wildfire. But trauma morphs with the passage of time. What are some other ways that trauma can come up for community members later in the recovery process, months or even years past an event like this?
Kukuk: Well, the trauma always lives in our bodies. We have healing, and we may find ways to carry it or alleviate the worst symptoms of it, but it always lives in our bodies. Trauma messes with time most of all, so sometimes it can really surprise someone, a lot like grief. There can be a sneaker wave that comes out of nowhere, it feels like, and it’s going to be different for everyone. One of the things for me, and for a number of folks in our community, is the wind. On a very windy day, our nervous systems are escalated, anxiety increases. Especially on a very windy day when it’s been very dry and very hot. Up until last Friday here in the Rogue Valley, we hadn’t really had a good, soaking rain, and I was anxious about going into this week, partly because of that memory that our cells hold. Then on Friday, we had a really good, long, gentle rain — the first, probably, of the season — and I could feel the whole community’s anxiety just go down about five notches because the threat had dissipated. Sometimes it’s those external things that can remind someone: the way the wind is blowing, the way it feels dry, or the wildfire smoke that’s coming in, from the Smith River [Complex] or one of the other fires, that often collects here in the valley.
Then there are interactions. There is so much that a fire survivor cannot control. So each time someone with an agency or organization or government entity tells them, “We think you’ll be able to be in your homes by X date,” and something happens and that doesn’t happen, or there’s a delay, or they get mixed messages, the panic increases, the anger may increase, the fear increases. There are just so many ways in which an interaction with someone also could bring up some of the symptoms of that communal experience of loss and trauma from three years ago.
Chávez: Mental health care and therapy can be extremely helpful with processing trauma. But we know that there are often barriers to accessing therapy, especially for low-income people, people of color and other marginalized groups. What are some other important ways community members are getting support for their emotional health?
Kukuk: There continues to be a real need. We have Jackson County Mental Health, Columbia Care and some others who have walk-in resources for folks. We also need resources out where people are. There’s still tons of stigma about mental health symptoms. A lot of folks really stuffed down and shelved their emotional and spiritual responses to the fire, just to get through survival for the first couple of years. There was so much paperwork, there were so many applications, there was just so much to do to get by. And so, for some folks, those symptoms are now appearing, and part of the need is to help raise community awareness that those symptoms have a source, that there’s a reason that folks are experiencing what they’re experiencing. Some of what’s most helpful is community education. “Here are some symptoms you might be experiencing,” and then, help[ing] folks find the connection to where they can best get support.
There is not enough capacity for mental health care in the valley; there wasn’t before the fire, there wasn’t before COVID, and there is even less for the need that we have in the valley, given what everyone’s been through. We really need investment in that mental health support. One of the barriers to accessing mental health support is that it tends to be offered one kind of way, and that is the traditional one-on-one, individual model of one person and one therapist in an office somewhere. There are cultural barriers, there are economic barriers to that model. Some of the most creative and encouraging work, from my perspective, is where people are creating well-being in between, [in] the gap between the person and their symptoms, and that one-on-one therapist experience in an office. There’s a whole field of room there for community care. The Phoenix-Talent School District has done this really well with their community care resource folks on staff, the zone captains are providing some social support circles, Rogue Valley Mentoring has offered survivor circles, as well as WinterSpring, which is a grief education and support group now under La Clínica’s umbrella. All of those folks have offered communal support, communal well-being.
When you think about emotional and spiritual care — and I’m including spiritual on purpose, because there are the emotional symptoms and then there is the aspect of spirituality, which is inclusive of religion, but also bigger than religion. It’s that sense of beliefs and values, and community and relationships, and identity and purpose that a natural disaster like this can threaten. And that spirituality, those can also be resources for someone who has survived this kind of natural disaster. Community can be a resource for resiliency after a natural disaster or a wildfire like this. Some of the most creative work is moving in the gaps there, addressing community and relationships, and providing access to well-being and mental health care that fits the cultural or economic needs of the folks who are recovering from this wildfire.
Chávez: How have you and the long-term recovery group approached the needs of groups particularly hard hit by the 2020 wildfires that also may have more barriers in the recovery process? For example, I’m thinking of Latino and Spanish-speaking residents of the Rogue Valley.
Kukuk: We had a really high number of [wildfire survivors from] Spanish-speaking households from our Latino/a/x population. There are a lot of reasons that, even before COVID and before the fires, we did not have an appropriate number of Spanish-speaking, bilingual/bicultural mental health care providers. That’s true all throughout Oregon, and it’s been especially true in the Rogue Valley. So we identified some ways to invest in that. One way is through a partnership with Raíces de Bienestar, which provides licensed mental health care that is culturally informed and appropriate and bilingual. They are increasing the number of clinicians who are able to provide direct services, and we’re really excited about that partnership. We also worked to support some of our bilingual/bicultural workforce, who [were] already supporting folks through social service agencies, in receiving the training for Mental Health First Aid. We didn’t have it offered in Spanish here in the valley, so part of what our committee identified was, let’s get a Spanish-language, Mental Health First Aid offering to increase the community education and awareness about symptoms of mental health needs. We also have been insistent that at anniversary events, we have bilingual/bicultural providers and bilingual language access.
Chávez: How can people who have suffered a lot of trauma exposure during the immediate aftermath of fires, like frontline recovery workers, get support?
Kukuk: That’s been a challenge, to be honest, and there’s a huge need for continuing support for the workforce, because it has been three years and that repeated exposure to other people’s suffering takes a toll. Many of our workforce here in the valley have been supporting survivors and also may have themselves experienced something at the time of the fire. Even if they didn’t lose their home, maybe they were separated from loved ones, maybe they had family who evacuated. Some organizations have good employee resource programs, through which some folks have been able to access their own therapists. For the long-term recovery group, we have started working with partners to offer retreats for workforce care. We’ve partnered, for example, with Lutheran Disaster Response to hold a retreat in the spring, and that was really, really good. The Phoenix-Talent School District [also] offered a retreat for some of the informal community leaders who have been helping their neighbors, their extended families respond to this fire.
It’s still going to be a few years before we are recovered here in the Rogue Valley, and the workforce that is bearing the weight of that recovery also needs good care, so that they can care well for the survivors in a really trauma-informed, kind, compassionate and survivor-centered way.
Chávez: It’s been three years Friday since the Almeda and South Obenchain fires started. What role does marking anniversaries of traumatic events play in survivors’ mental and emotional health?
Kukuk: There are a lot of levels to it. Our bodies remember, often before we do, what time it is. Anniversaries give people a place to connect with others who also have experienced this. I think one of the hardest things for survivors is how many people don’t understand what they’ve been through, and don’t have patience for the challenges they now have in their life. A lot of survivors mention that family members don’t really understand. Family members will sometimes say, “Well, it’s been six months, you’ve got to get over this,” and that’s just not how it works. So one thing anniversary commemorations offer is a place for survivors to connect with others who get it, who know how hard this has been and continues to be, so it offers community. Anniversary events also offer space for people to bring all of the emotions. The pain that folks are still continuing to carry, the grief, as well as the gratitude and the thanksgivings, the gifts that they’ve received from connection with other kind and caring humans. It gives space, both for the pain and for the joy and the hope, and that space isn’t made elsewhere. That space allows survivors to continue to integrate what they’ve been through into their life, into their journey. That integration is key to helping people find a way forward after trauma. [Another] reason anniversary events are important is to celebrate our community’s resilience and honor all we have been able to build or rebuild from the ashes — despite the barriers, and sometimes in direct response to those barriers. Anniversary events give us space to say: “Look how far we’ve come together.”
Chávez: There are many people in our region who’ve experienced wildfires, who might be dealing with the things we’ve been talking about. For those people who might be listening, do you have any words of advice or encouragement to share?
Kukuk: You’re not imagining it. It’s not all in your head. It’s also not your fault if you’re experiencing some of these symptoms of a trauma response. You’re not to blame. And there are others who also are trying to find their way forward, and community, connecting with others, can help us heal, can help us recover, can help us find our future again.
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