Secondhand suffering

Photo by Ken Smith

Staff writer Ashiah Scharaga at the Neighborhood Church evacuation shelter on Nov. 9, 2018.

I knew I had to leave the auditorium of the Paradise Performing Arts Center when I started shaking. Butte County Fire Chief David Hawks was on stage, speaking about the wildfire conditions on Nov, 8, 2018. He calmly went through a play-by-play of how his department responded as the Camp Fire tore across the Ridge.

I wasn’t reporting at the time. In fact, I was about to perform at the Joy Will Find a Way variety show—a tribute to the resiliency of the Ridge on the weekend of the one-year anniversary—with my castmates from Theatre on the Ridge’s Bright Star. As we waited for our turn on stage, we held each others’ hands and cried while watching musicians performing moving original songs and then a heartbreaking symphonic memorial performance featuring images of those who died.

My reaction to Hawks, however, surprised me. I found myself growing angry. I don’t want to hear this, I thought. Why is he telling us what we already know? Once I reached the lobby, I broke down sobbing in front of strangers.

Suddenly, I felt someone gently touching my elbow. Her name was Sharon, and she was a volunteer therapist from the Camp Fire Long-Term Recovery Group. She embraced me and told me it was OK. In fact, what I was experiencing was a normal, physical reaction to trauma, she explained.

But that can’t be right, I thought. You see, I wasn’t there. That fateful morning I was in the CN&R newsroom, trying to quell the fear and dread growing inside of me as I learned more about what was happening. I reached out to my boyfriend’s family, who’d lived in Paradise for decades, and my castmates of Theatre on the Ridge’s High Noon on Wall Street, which was supposed to start its second week of shows that night.

It was irresponsible to feel. As a journalist, it was my duty to be calm. And that’s how much of the past year went. Even at home. My boyfriend had just lost his hometown. His mother and grandmother lost everything. They moved in with us temporarily, and we became a household of five people and four cats in a two-bedroom, one-bathroom apartment. The last thing I wanted to do was make this about me.

So I kept moving. And the stories kept piling up as we hustled to cover the aftereffects of the fire. The enormity of the suffering I’d witnessed secondhand lingered, attaching itself to a darkness within me. Sometimes the grief I felt would escape briefly: I cried after I interviewed a man living in the RV park at the Silver Dollar Fairgrounds who was worried about providing for his family. I did so again after visiting Gridley for a cover story, where I witnessed the compassion of the community first-hand at a donation center for survivors. And the story of the first survivor I spoke to, Anna Dise, has never left me: She last saw her father running into their burning home and then spent the night outrunning the fire with her dogs.

The night of the show, I told Sharon a truncated version of this, and I asked her why I was reacting so strongly—it felt wrong. It wasn’t, she told me. After speaking with her and shedding more tears with a couple of my castmates, I composed myself, reapplied my makeup and performed well. Not long after, I attended a free webinar about how witnessing and responding to a disaster can affect people, and it validated so much of what I had experienced over the past year. It’s often the helpers who end up being overexposed to stories of trauma, for example. And that in caring so deeply for others, we often overlook ourselves, which is detrimental to us and to the people we serve.

I’m still working on that self-care. But those experiences marked a turning point for me. I realized that it wasn’t selfish to admit that the Camp Fire had traumatized me, too.