Hell’s Fury: The Woolsey Fire
What would you do if you were woken up out of a dead sleep in the middle of the night being told you had to evacuate your home immediately? What would you do if you found yourself in the precarious position of warding off a fire just steps from your home with no firefighters in sight? How would you feel watching as the flames crept closer and closer to the life you had built, like a game of Russian Roulette, not knowing if your home would be next?
Over the past week in California, this was the reality many faced as the Camp, Hill, and Woolsey fires ravaged their communities. For some, there was no warning and they barely escaped with their lives. Others were woken up by a phone call that struck them to their core; mandatory evacuations have been ordered for your area.
My family was fortunate, the closest the Woolsey fire came to our home was about five miles away and we were never evacuated. Still, the terror I felt was almost too much to handle. There were several small fires within two miles from our home, and with each report, the fear grew.
I can’t even imagine the fear those who were in the direct path of the fire must have felt. Knowing that, as you evacuate, everything could be taken away in a heartbeat was a real possibility. This is what many of my friends and their families faced.
Karl Schott and his wife Diane, owners of Schott in the Dark Farms where Diane teaches riders, “Specializing in Jumpers from a Classical Dressage Point of View” not only had to evacuate themselves but the horses on their ranch where they work and live.
I have had the privilege of spending time with them at their ranch. It is a picturesque setting settled in the Santa Monica Mountains with the Pacific Ocean just over the hill in the distance. Each gathering my family and I attended at their home was one filled with great food, laughter, and love.
Life changed for them when the Woolsey fire ravaged the beautiful hills surrounding their home, but luckily for them, their house was spared. They returned home to find no damage to their property. Then, the angry beast decided it wasn’t done with them yet and circled back to their ranch.
Schott shared, “It slowly came towards us and then wrapped around and started coming down the front side to get us.” Fire crews had previously left the area when the first threat was assumed to be gone. With no fire crews in sight, Schott was left to fight the angry beast that threatened him and his family with the single firehose he and his family own to pre-wet the dry hillside. Diane was using their garden hose to wet down the palm trees in their yard.
“5 PM HELL strikes and we had NO FIRE CREW PERIOD,” Schott recalls. The Woolsey fire was “spreading like wildfire” pardon the pun, and crews were stretched thin. Many people lost their homes; some lost their lives while trying to escape.
Along with photos on Schott’s post he stated, “Part of the reason they do not want people in here” having gone home before evacuations were lifted. If they hadn’t, their home and business would have been destroyed.
My good friend Tonya Fanto received a text at 1:30 a.m. about being evacuated. Being in shock as anyone would be, she thought to herself, “What do we do? We have prepared for things like this but until you are in it you don’t know what to do.”
Fanto and her family are the best of the best. They are the kind of people you are honored to be friends with. Fanto is the kind of person who you could tell anything to. I am so blessed to have her as my friend, so hearing how traumatic this was on her broke my heart.
She continued by telling me, “I yelled to my husband, my daughters and got our three dogs and we got in our car and drove.” Having talked to her during the days of the fire, I know the toll it was taking on her. “Thoughts keep flashing through my head, what will happen, will we be safe, where will we go?”
Although most know that being involved in a fire such as this can be traumatic, many may not realize the long-term emotional effects this can have on someone. In fact, many who go through a traumatic experience such as this can develop PTSD (Post Traumatic Stress Disorder). According to The University of British Columbia, “Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) is a possibility for people who perceived that their lives, or the lives of loved ones, were in acute danger.”
This isn’t just for those who have been directly impacted by a fire. “If a community is impacted, you have lost something.” Take me, for example. We were never in any real danger, but the possibility was enough to traumatize me. Also, knowing that my friends were in danger made it harder to cope with.
Those who have fallen prey to a wildfire such as this may experience depression, anxiety, or, as I stated above, PTSD. Some, however, are able to cope with the stress just fine. There are many circumstances that come into play when considering this.
For my friends, not 24 hours before, their community had experienced a mass shooting at the Borderline Bar and Grill in Thousand Oaks, Ca. These two incidents, two back-to-back traumatic experiences, only intensified the complexity of their trauma.
Fanto shared with me that “The emotions are many from thankfulness to worry about can this happen again. In addition, we are coming off the mass shooting at Borderline and the senseless loss of life.” She continues by saying, “now it is one week removed, and we are back home, and it still feels like we are in it.” This is a normal feeling and finding normalcy again for Fanto and her family will be vital in their ability to cope and move on.
Still, the stress and emotions surrounding the fire may not be evident at first. Schott ends by sharing that “Now looking at the horrifying news we are very fortunate.” And that he was!
It is important to recognize your feelings during and after an event such as this. When asked, “What advice would you offer people amidst these fire situations, evacuation alerts, about managing stress and mental health?” Rachel Cox, head of the Disaster and Emergency Management program at Royal Roads University in Victoria, said, “Be aware of it and normalize it. People often talk about feeling like they were going crazy. Recognize that, for most people, uncertainty is stressful. Fear is stressful. Practice good self care.”
Cox continues, “Recognize that everybody deals with these situations a little bit differently. Give yourself permission to grieve if there’s something to grieve for, whether a home or whatever.” She goes on to say that “recovery takes time.”
If you were involved in one of the recent wildfires in California, or you know someone who was, be patient, allow yourself and others to grieve in his or her own way. In a few months, if you are not coping as you would expect, get some help from a counselor to help you through it.