California Wildfires Bring Fresh Terror To Survivors Of Last Year's Flames : Shots - Health News In fire-torn parts of the West, some people who are now safe struggle mightily when they again smell smoke or see an orange haze in the sky. That's normal, say therapists. And you can quench the fear.
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California Wildfires Reignite Old Trauma For Survivors Of Last Year's Blazes

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California Wildfires Reignite Old Trauma For Survivors Of Last Year's Blazes

California Wildfires Reignite Old Trauma For Survivors Of Last Year's Blazes

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LULU GARCIA-NAVARRO, HOST:

As wildfires rage across California, President Donald Trump has declared a major disaster in the state, opening up federal funds to help with the recovery. Several blazes are less than an hour away from one community affected badly by fires less than a year ago - Sonoma County. They destroyed thousands of homes and killed 44 people. KQED's Lesley McClurg reports that the new blazes are a terrifying reality for people still recovering.

LESLEY MCCLURG, BYLINE: The view from Danielle Bryant's bedroom window in Santa Rosa is unsettling.

DANIELLE BRYANT: The orange-tint sky is just enough for me to set off my anxiety and feelings of fear.

MCCLURG: Last year, on October 8, Bryant awoke to howling winds. The air was hot. They could feel the flames. She and her husband jumped in their car and fled with just the clothes on their backs.

BRYANT: I feared for our life. We were running for our life. At that point it was starting to sink in that we were running for our lives.

MCCLURG: When they returned the next day, the street was desolate. The air reeked of chemicals.

BRYANT: Nothing can ever prepare you for what we saw. I was speechless. I couldn't even cry.

MCCLURG: For the past year, Bryant has struggled with symptoms of trauma - sleeplessness, nightmares, irritability, loss of appetite.

BRYANT: These last 10 months have been one of the hardest times. It is the hardest time of my life because what you have to do after an event like this is you have to go on living.

MCCLURG: For almost a year, psychologist Francis Fuchs has counseled fire victims in Santa Rosa.

FRANCIS FUCHS: It might not seem very rational to be having a trauma response this late, but it's quite normal.

MCCLURG: She says the smell of smoke or emergency sounds can trigger flashbacks or panic attacks.

FUCHS: Like airplanes, helicopters, news flashes and the sound of the alert system going off on your phone.

MCCLURG: If people feel a flood of anxiety, Fuchs recommends stopping and taking a deep breath.

FUCHS: Saying, OK, this is the way I'm feeling but I know that it's not close. I'm paying attention. But often just connecting with someone and not trying to do it alone.

(SOUNDBITE OF CAR DOOR CLOSING)

MCCLURG: Danielle Bryant and her husband are now living in a temporary apartment. It's not far from their old house. She takes me over to see the ruins. As she backs out of her narrow parking spot, she pauses.

BRYANT: This, just seeing the smoke off to the East, I get this sense of dread. Just immediately I go, ugh, oh no, not again.

MCCLURG: Her old neighborhood is about a mile away. She's made the trip almost weekly for the last year.

BRYANT: It was like visiting like a grave site. So it was a place to just come and be and to cry.

MCCLURG: As we drive down her old street we pass the skeleton of a burned-out car.

BRYANT: You can still see some of the trees that are still standing. Their trunks are burnt.

MCCLURG: But the suburb is also coming back to life. Construction crews are framing new homes.

BRYANT: Let me see if I can kind of snake into Hemlock Street.

MCCLURG: Bryant's lot is overgrown with weeds.

BRYANT: You can see our street sign.

MCCLURG: She treads through some bushes.

BRYANT: See this outline, this box? That was it. That was our home.

MCCLURG: Next door, a crane drops a pile of plywood beams and green sprouts are pushing through the ground.

BRYANT: This green is hopeful to me. This is just a sign that nature comes back and is forgiving and that we can live on. We can come back.

MCCLURG: And is there any part of you that's questioning living in the same place?

BRYANT: Yes. That was something that we had - it was very mixed because it is going back to the place of trauma, but it's also going back to our home.

MCCLURG: They hope to move back in in about a year. For NPR News, I'm Lesley McClurg in Santa Rosa.

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