Paulie Hawthorne is used to fire. She grew up in southeastern Oregon, long a hotbed for wildfires.
“I can remember, even as a kid, there were fires. I mean, it was just kind of a thing that happened,” Hawthorne, 47, said. Hawthorne and her husband had to evacuate in 2017 from their old home in Brookings, Oregon, during the 2017 Chetco Bar wildfire, which burned through more than 190,000 acres, including about 80,000 acres in the Kalmiopsis Wilderness. Today she lives in Klamath Falls, Oregon, a small city about 280 miles south of Portland that has seen frequent, low-intensity fires over the years. While her current exposure has been mild, when she smells smoke in the air or simply sees ashy skies, it pulls her back.
“The hardest part about evacuating is you just think it’s gonna be like a couple days, and we were out for almost a month,” she explained.
The lingering dread associated with fires isn’t unique to Hawthorne, and the wildfires that have devastated large chunks of Oregon and California aren’t just decimating towns and driving residents away. Mental health experts say the fear and uncertainty that comes with wildfires can cause long-term psychological impact on residents. Worse yet, just as the region is seeing a growing increase in people seeking therapy, there is a deficit in available therapeutic resources.
Darla Gale, a licensed marriage and family therapist specializing in trauma and founder of Heartstrings Counseling in Loomis, California, said it is the unknown that is causing an abundance of stress and anxiety.
“We have had a tremendous increase in calls just in the last few months. It’s been overwhelming. I’ve had to hire seven more therapists to handle the load,” she said.
Many of her clients were previously victims of the 2018 Camp Fire, a deadly and damaging California fire that took nearly 90 lives.
“For the fire survivors, it’s the PTSD because of the smoke,” she said, using the acronym for post-traumatic stress disorder. But she also noted that some who survived the Camp Fire have now had to re-evacuate. It’s trauma on top of trauma.
Even residents who did not lose their homes say these wildfires have a lasting impact on their ability to manage daily life, even outside the direct path of destruction.
During the Two Four Two wildfire — which ravaged Klamath County, Oregon, in September — Hawthorne said she and her husband had trouble sleeping and were obsessively checking the sky and internet for information. Though they live some 15 miles away from the path of the fire, they simply didn’t feel safe.
“We both almost felt a compulsion to start getting our stuff together,” she said.
Hawthorne, who is a social worker and mental health therapist, said she is very familiar with the symptoms of trauma and PTSD. But that knowledge has not made dealing with wildfire anxiety any