Staying connected

Photo by Ashiah Scharaga

Merle Loomis finds some necessities at the Magalia Community Church distribution center.

Merle Loomis gently placed her hand over her heart as tears welled in her eyes. After the Camp Fire destroyed her home in Magalia, there were days when she fell into a “terrible depression,” she said.

She took a moment to collect herself in the lobby of the Magalia Community Church’s distribution center, where she had just checked in to grab a few household goods, including food to make for her visiting grandchildren.

The past year has taken a toll on her. Since April, Loomis, 72, has lived in a solar-powered trailer on her property. Before that, she moved from hotel to hotel. Adjusting to life after the fire, including the exodus of her church group and friends, has been difficult. There have been times when she wished she didn’t make it out of the blaze alive, she said.

It’s the kindness of the remaining community that has kept Loomis going—she’s made friends with the volunteers at the distribution center, who greet her with big smiles and light-hearted jokes.

“I just remember coming in right after the fire—[it was] raining so hard—and getting a warm blanket and a nice coat,” she said. “Mentally, it’s been the very best for me, [coming here]. … I [get] a lot of emotional support and love.”

A year after the devastating blaze, Loomis is in good company. Experts say that many survivors are still struggling emotionally.

The difficulty is compounded for those who aren’t able to meet their basic needs—such as water, food, clothing and shelter—which forestalls their ability to process the trauma and start healing.

Crisis outreach workers with California HOPE, a Federal Emergency Management Agency-funded program facilitated by Butte County Behavioral Health, have been working to address these issues since the wildfire, according to program manager Jake Fender. They’ve provided individual and group counseling and support at places like the Magalia Community Church. So far, they have logged 5,597 counseling visits, Fender told the CN&R, as well as 46,398 group counseling visits, primarily with children.

The team of over 20 employees provides free, confidential services, focusing on listening to survivors and providing them with referrals and tips on how to cope, Fender said. They let people know “it’s OK to not be OK.”

The program is set to expire in February, but Fender is hoping for an extension—the scope of this disaster is such that the outreach workers are still encountering people nearly a year later who are struggling to meet their basic needs. Many were underinsured and already living in poverty, he said, and the fire just exacerbated those difficulties.

“We want to move into a recovery phase, but we’re still in a relief mode,” Fender continued. “Those basic needs … are not necessarily as pressing as they were in the immediate aftermath, but there are people living in their cars, people living in their tents.”

Many still have nowhere to go, no support system and no economic resources, Fender said. Some need mental health services but are hesitant to take that step.

Behavioral Health released data late last month that show it has retained 97.6 percent of the 612 clients receiving outpatient services in Paradise before the fire. Across the county, the number of people visiting outpatient clinics, including the county’s youth contractors, increased by 6.4 percent when comparing the six-month period before and after the fire.

At her private practice, Dr. Sésha Zinn has noticed more patients starting to process their trauma now, compared with the months immediately following the disaster. That’s typical, the psychologist said—right after a traumatic event, the fight-or-flight response is triggered and people are focused primarily on making sure their families are safe, getting food and water and finding a place to stay.

“It takes a while to come down from the traumatic event and decompress, and that’s when things really start to set in. We’re really starting to see a lot of that trauma turn into PTSD,” continued Zinn, who is also deputy director at Behavioral Health. “[But] some people are able to process it really well, especially depending on their support systems and their backgrounds.”

In particular, the anniversary of a traumatic event is triggering, Zinn told the CN&R. The best thing people can do is find a way to honor the experience they had. This will depend on the person: Some may want to take a vacation or mental health day, or spend time with family and loved ones. Others might want to visit certain places on the Ridge, or won’t know how they want to spend Nov. 8 until the day arrives, Zinn said. She cautioned people against charging ahead and pretending that the fire didn’t happen.

“We cannot control what happened to us, but we can control how we respond,” Zinn said. “It really is thinking about it and considering it, for you and your family, what is the healthiest [way] to kind of honor that experience.”

Zinn added that it’s important to recognize that survivors may need a shoulder to lean on that day, whether it be a counselor, friend or family member. Everybody’s reaction will be different, and people should accept whatever feelings might arise within themselves and in others. This is something to remember for years to come.

“This is an event and a trauma that this community will be processing for decades,” Zinn said. “Our entire community will need to be ready to give grace.”

Back at the Magalia Community Church, as Loomis grabbed a few necessities like paper towels, she told the CN&R the supplies are helpful but that she mainly comes by to be connected to her community. It has been vital for her well-being.

“I’m not sure I know where I’d be emotionally [without them],” she said. “They are my friends, and this is my home.”