The Long-Lasting Mental Health Effects of Wildfires
Across the West, fire season lasts longer and has become more intense than any time in history—tens of thousands of structures burn every year, and dozens of people die. But new research is highlighting a different problem: those who survive are never the same.
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When Aimee Gray woke up on a Sunday morning in October 2017, she decided she was finally going to get a new pair of shoes. She’d worn holes in her favorite Skechers, so when she and her husband headed into town for groceries, she stopped in the shoe store and treated herself to two new pairs.
As they drove back to the home they rented on Bennett Ridge Road, in the hills southeast of Santa Rosa, California, her husband remarked on the strange, warm wind that had been blowing through town all weekend. Later that night, as she lay in bed, Gray heard it whipping through the trees until she finally drifted off.
Just before 2 A.M., Gray woke up to her mastiff barking frantically. She thought, It’s a windy night, I know—go back to bed, Brighton. But Brighton wouldn’t stop, so Gray got up. As soon as she opened the bedroom door, smoke hit her in the face. She ran to the other side of the house. Outside the big picture window overlooking the valley, everything was red with fire. “You’re the best damn dog in the world,” she told Brighton, patting her on the head.
It was a mad scramble to evacuate. The couple threw a few pairs of underwear in a bag, then loaded Brighton and their other mastiff, Reese, in the truck. Gray lifted her daughter, just shy of two at the time, from her crib, telling her the family was going on a fun trip with the dogs. Gray changed out of her pajamas into the clothes she’d been wearing the day before and put on her favorite pair of Skechers, the ones with the holes worn through. “I had this moment of, wait, hold the phone—you have brand-new shoes,” she said and put on one of the pairs she’d bought a few hours before.
As Gray slipped out the front door, she was nearly knocked over by a powerful gust of wind. The air was thick with acrid smoke, and she noticed flames creeping toward their front porch; embers fell from the trees, threatening to ignite the house. Flames were already overtaking neighbors’ houses.
Huge swaths of Santa Rosa were ablaze. The wind had blown a tree into a power-line conductor and started the Nuns Fire, torching the hills around Gray’s neighborhood. A little farther north, a faulty electric system near Tubbs Lane ignited a second blaze, the Tubbs Fire. Fifty-mile-an-hour winds quickly stoked both into uncontrollable infernos. Tubbs rapidly became what was at the time one of the most destructive wildfires in state history, killing 22 people and destroying some 5,600 structures. Nuns, and the nearby fires it merged with, went on to burn over 56,000 acres and destroyed more than 1,500 structures.
Driving away from her house, Gray says, the only road out was enveloped in fire. She wondered whether she could make it. Would the heat pop her tires? But there was no other way off the ridge, so she gunned it through the flames. “I will never, until the day I die, forget how hot it felt to have that fire right at the car window,” she says.
The next few days were a blur. As friends shared stories through Facebook posts and text messages, Gray learned which neighbors got out, which ones hid in their swimming pool to avoid the flames, and who died. Residents weren’t allowed to visit their burned homes as the National Guard secured the area and local officials performed safety checks on utilities, but one intrepid neighbor snuck up the ridge to report back about the damage. According to him, nearly all of Gray’s street was gone. Of the roughly 120 houses he checked on, Gray says, some 90 had burned to the ground. But still, the Grays received no calls from the city, no official confirmation. Finally, four days later, a satellite-imaging company released photos of the area. When the family scrolled to their neighborhood, “we saw with our own eyes that there was nothing there,” says Gray.
They moved in with friends nearby, and Gray put on a brave face. “I remember posting all these super positive things on Facebook,” she says. “It’s part of my personality: Hey, I’m OK, don’t worry about me. I’ve always been the worrier, the comforter, taking care of people.”
But one November morning a few weeks later, as she walked outside to grab something from her car, she smelled smoke. “All of a sudden, I started dry heaving and ran back to the house to get fresh air,” she says. The neighbors were burning wood in their fireplace. She went to the bathroom to splash water on her face, and as she closed her eyes, she saw flames, sending her into a fit of sobs. She decided she needed help. A therapist told her that some of her symptoms sounded like post-traumatic stress disorder. “I knew some things about PTSD,” she says, “but I certainly never thought in a million years that I’d be experiencing it.”