On a September Saturday in 2015 I was telling a stranger that I was from Cobb, California just as the Valley Fire set the surrounding forest on fire. That odd timing has stuck with me for the past six years. I could see the smoke from Sacramento by the next day.
Cobb was my hometown. I spent nearly half of my childhood among three hundred people, zero stoplights, two pizza parlors, and countless towering evergreens. It was wild, peaceful, dirty, simple, and had the kind of stars that you haven't even seen in your dreams. My father and I would drive midway through a creek, park the pickup, and dangle our feet into the water on a hot summer’s day. We roasted marshmallows in the wood stove when winter storms knocked out the power (again). My childhood best friend and I could spend all day in a tree with a stack of "Calvin and Hobbes" books. Her home burned to its foundations, along with the entire community of Anderson Springs.
I was in a unique position to help. I worked for the state public health department’s emergency preparedness office, and by Tuesday I deployed to the Calistoga evacuation center. The county fairgrounds, normally thick with crafts and fried food, now held rows of tents and trailers. My neighbors sat dazed in lawn chairs with their remaining lives piled around them. They seemed out of sync with the world around them, as if they experienced their surroundings at half speed. If asked to draw a picture of trauma, I would draw them. With a clipboard and a set of community assessment questions I sat with friends, neighbors, and strangers to ask them about the worst day of their life. The end goal was to understand what our evacuee community needed most. I remember the day in a spin cycle of the following:
"I hate to ask this, but do you know if your home is okay? *pause* I'm so sorry."
"This building here has plenty of supplies so you can keep your animals comfortable. Have you suffered the loss of any other pets during the fire or evacuation?" *long pause, with no idea what to say next*
"Are you or anyone in your group experiencing anxiety, fear, or distraction since the evacuation? *pause* Yes, I realize that this goes without saying."
My final question was always, “Would you like to talk to a counselor?” Mental health professionals were available seventeen hours a day, but my humble and hardy mountain folk always declined. Being local helped me convince some that addressing their trauma was as important as dressing a wound. For others, I brought a counselor with me and quietly slipped away when the two got to talking.
I truly thought I was helping. Perhaps it did for some, but acute stress has a way of locking our minds in place. Nothing matters more than surviving the moment. Fight, flight, and freeze make a lot of tasks difficult, including simply talking about what is going on with us. Talk therapy, while extremely useful, was just too much for my poor neighbors to bear.
Last November I staffed my first IHAN recovery clinic in Paradise. In many ways the part of me that showed up that day was the part of me that never left the Calistoga evacuation center. I felt what seemed like thousands of repeating emotions, as if the Valley Fire was yesterday. I, too, was locked in place. Yet the quiet, patient space IHAN clinics create is exactly the place to confront those blocks. Since IHAN’s clinics are focused on providing body-oriented treatments like acupuncture and massage therapy, talking about the trauma is not a requirement. Yet fire survivors who came in silent before their treatments talked to one another, to their practitioners, and to me by the time they were done. Soon enough, I talked back. We felt safe enough to express our vulnerability to one another, and in doing so found a chance to grow. As the sun set on the clinic I thought of no better way to thank that part of me that was stuck in freeze from the destruction of my beloved hometown for her service, and to wish her well.
- Kala Haley-Clark, IHAN development and communications director