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Mitigating the mental health threats in mass shelters Part II: Wildfires

If you have not yet read the first installment of this series on Mental Health and Sheltering, please step back one blog post and start at the beginning!

This series installment hits close to home for me personally as just a few weeks ago I responded to a fire that was dangerously close to my own home. As I raced to the fire hall my mind was bombarded with thoughts of where my family would go, how long we would be displaced, and whether or not we would lose everything. Fortunately, the fire was knocked down and our home was not affected.

It is a dangerous time to live in Texas as the state is currently at preparedness National Interagency Fire Center (NIFC) Level 5 which is the highest level of wildland fire activity. In our most recent update, the Texas A&M Forest Service received reports of 15 more wildfires in the state, one of which I responded to. Due to dry air and 100+degree temperatures, those wildfires are expected to continue.

Wildfires are usually triggered by lightning or accidents and often go unnoticed at first. They can spread quickly and are especially destructive if they occur near forests, rural areas, remote mountain sites, and other woodland settings where people live. It must be remembered that many wildfires, particularly those in the western United States can result in severe flooding and landslides when heavy rains follow or happen during wildfires. This compounded disaster situation can lead to increased anxiety amongst evacuees as they become aware of the new threats and damages leading to more incidents of mental fatigue and breakdown in the shelter environment.

Feelings such as overwhelming anxiety, constant worrying, trouble sleeping, and other depression-like symptoms are common responses before, during, and after wildfires. Oftentimes, in events such as the current 2023 Texas wildfires, a dangerous hyper-vigilance can begin to erode the mental well-being of area residents before any evacuation or incident is announced.

Other signs of emotional distress related to wildfires include having thoughts, memories, or nightmares related to the wildfire. These memories can trigger night terrors, sleeplessness, and increased anxiety all leading to more serious physical health issues and a greater burden on those involved in shelter management.

In 2022, one of the largest wildfires in Texas history gained national attention as the town of Carbon, Texas was reduced to rubble and ash.

During the wildfire outbreak, a state of disaster was declared for 11 counties after four fires burned over 54,000 acres and destroyed 86 homes- most of the town of Carbon, Texas along with several rural homes throughout surrounding Eastland County. The fire, which was larger than the famous Bastrop Fire of 2011, caused the evacuation of 18,000 Eastland County residents to evacuate ahead of the fire only to have Carbon residents return to their destroyed properties one week later.

Many challenges were faced by the hundreds of responders that attempted to save the town including the large amount of animal evacuations that had to take place as well as the large number of ranchers that continued to entire the fire area in order to water livestock near the fire. After the loss of 54,000 acres, a hay shortage struck the state of Texas that gave way to massive efforts in other states to truck in hay for distraught and starving livestock.

Approximately 14 state agencies were deployed, along with 58 fire departments to help provide equipment and support during the wildfires. Over 500 homes were evacuated. Many firefighters and other responders should be included in not only the number of those who responded but unfortunately were also victims of the fire as well.

In a 2021 review published in Behavioral Sciences, researchers examined 63 studies pertaining to the mental health effects of exposure to wildfires and found that rates of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) after wildfire exposure among adults were 24% to 60% at 3 months, 12.8% to 26% at 6 months, and 10.2% to 13.6% at 18 months. Rates of PTSD in children and adolescents ranged from 9% to 29.4% at 6 months and 27% to 37% at 12 months post-wildfire.

Trauma-related factors associated with an elevated risk for PTSD following wildfires included “personal witnessing of burning homes, having fear for one’s life or lives of loved ones, losing a loved one, significant property damage, or feeling a lack of support from family, friends, and/or the government,” according to study authors. Ongoing trauma and life stressors were cited as an additional contributing factor to PTSD risk.

Numerous studies reviewed also demonstrated increased rates of depression following wildfires among adults in affected populations, ranging from 25.5% to 33% at 3 months, 10.4% to 17.1%% at 6 months, and 18.3% to 24.8% at 18 months. In pediatric populations, rates of depression were 4.7% to 20% at 6 months, and 17% at 18 months post-wildfire.

The prevalence of post-wildfire trauma has become so common that new terminology is beginning to enter our workspace. The term “solastalgia” (as opposed to nostalgia), describes the melancholia or homesickness experienced by individuals when separated from a loved home. Solastalgia is the distress that is produced by environmental change impacting people while they are directly connected to their home environment.

Other terms have begun to permeate the emergency response world such as “eco-anxiety”, and “ecological grief” reflect the worry about the negative impact of environmental change, and the emotional distress due to the loss of nature.

Study findings published in 2021 in Research in Developmental Disabilities examined the mental health effects of exposure to the Northern California Wildfires of 2017 among children and youth with developmental disabilities. The results showed that participants and their parents “exhibited stress, grief, and other emotional and behavioral reactions during the evacuation, in the immediate aftermath, and 1-year post-disaster.

In light of all of this data, it would be irresponsible to erect and/or operate a shelter in the event of widespread wildfires that did not immediately accommodate the need for mental health professionals to be onsite immediately and permanently to assist the shelter residents. This purposeful implementation could easily be seen as part of both a security and healthcare mitigation plan. This addition of professional assistance alongside a new situational awareness and adherence to the recommendations made previously for general mass shelters (especially those providing lodging to families) could prevent security and safety issues within the confines of the shelter and could provide a strong foundation for shelter residents as they return to their homes(?) and new normal.

I hope you look forward to the next installment of this series on sheltering, mental health, and creating safe and considerate opportunities for evacuees, refugees, immigrants, and disaster survivors.

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