Northern California children learn to deal with the trauma of being left behind

Sonoma, Calif. – Maia and Mia Bravo left their home on a bright summer day and sensed danger.

Smoke from burning wood rose over his garden. Maia, 17, was looking for the source while Mia, 14, found the hose, turned on the tap and sprayed water around the perimeter of the property.

That smell of smoke took the sisters back to an afternoon in October 2017, when a fire tore through their former home. From the back of the minivan, the girls see flames surrounding their trailer in Glen Ellen, a town in Northern California’s wine country.

They abandon their belongings, including Mia’s beloved doll, and leave without their cat Missy, who was frightened by the fire. The only thing the family had was a blanket from the 3-month-old baby.

The family walked along a dark path lit by burning trees. Mia was calm. Maya felt nauseous.

As California’s wildfires become more intense, frequent, and widespread, many children who survive them are suffering chronic psychological trauma, including anxiety, depression, and post-traumatic stress disorder.

Remnants of the Tubbs fire at Coffee Park in October 2017.(Heidi DeMarco/KHN)

Children may also have trouble sleeping or concentrating, or may have trouble at school. If left untreated, trauma can affect your physical health, leading to chronic health problems, mental illness and addiction.

Beginning in 2020, states require physicians participating in low-income Medicaid programs to screen children and adults for potentially traumatic events related to adverse childhood experiences.

The state’s latest ACE (Adverse Childhood Experiences) report, which was conducted between January 2020 and September 2021, found that children and adults are at greater risk of exposure to toxic stress or trauma if they live in North County, a predominantly rural area. affected by fire

Although no screening can help detect neglect, abuse or dysfunction in the home, doctors and health officials have suggested that the wildfires contributed to the high ACE scores in rural Northern California.

In an annual report, 70% of children and adults in Shasta County, where the Carr fire burned in 2018, were found to be at high risk of injury. In Napa County, where the Tubbs Fire swept through Wine Country in 2017, 50% of children and adults were considered at high risk of trauma.

In a complementary analysis, researchers found that 75% of adults in some Northern California counties had experienced one or more traumatic events, compared to 60% statewide. That includes Butte County, where 85 people died in a campfire.

Maia Bravo with her cat Missy, who was found 15 days after the family fled the forest fire. Missy passed away recently.(Heidi DeMarco/KHN)

“When you already have a population with high trauma rates to begin with, and you add environmental trauma, it makes everything more difficult,” said Dr. Sean Duggan, a pediatrician at Shasta Community Health Center who conducted some of the ACE evaluations. .

Wildfires disrupt routines, force people to move and create instability for children who need comfort and safety. In recent years, California demographers have attributed some of the dramatic population shifts to wildfires that are destroying homes and displacing families.

“There’s nothing more stressful for a child than for their parents to worry,” said Christopher Godley, director of emergency management for Sonoma County, which has been hit by five of the state’s most devastating wildfires since 2015.

Children can also be indirect victims of forest fires. According to a study published by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, about 7.4 million children in the country are exposed to wildfire smoke annually, which not only affects the respiratory system but can also lead to attention deficit/hyperactivity disorder, autism, disabilities. School performance, and memory problems.

In 2017, the Bravo family survived the Tubbs Fire, which burned parts of Napa and Sonoma counties and the city of Santa Rosa. At the time, it was the most destructive fire in state history, leveling neighborhoods and killing nearly two dozen people.

After being evacuated from the 2017 Tubbs Fire, the family has an “emergency backpack” near the front door of the home. Inside are cans, water, flashlights and other essentials.(Heidi DeMarco/KHN)

They slept in their minivan the first night and then took refuge with their families in nearby Petaluma.

“I was scared, I was shocked,” Maya recalls. “I was up all night.”

The sisters found their cat, Missy, curled up under a neighbor’s trailer 15 days after their evacuation. His leg was badly burned.

For the first few years after the fire, Maia had nightmares filled with fire, ash and burnt houses. He wakes up to the sound of fire truck sirens.

Children may react differently to trauma depending on their age. Young children may feel anxious and fearful, eat poorly, or develop separation anxiety from their parents or trusted adults. Older children may feel depressed and lonely, develop eating disorders or self-destructive behaviors, or start using alcohol or drugs.

“When you have these children who are experiencing this intense displacement, loss of life, total destruction of property, it’s important to have social support,” said Melissa Brymer, director of the Counterterrorism and Disaster Program at the UCLA-Duke University National Center. Child Traumatic Stress.

Brymer said kids also need tools to stay calm. These include maintaining a routine, playing family games, exercising or seeing a counselor, explains Sarah Lowe, a clinical psychologist and associate professor at the Yale School of Public Health.

“For kids, it’s really important to instill a sense of stability and re-establish some routine and sense of normalcy,” she added.

First responders are beginning to integrate mental well-being for both adults and children into their disaster response plans.

Sonoma County officials now post resources for people dealing with wildfire stress, including tips for assembling emergency kits and creating an escape plan.

And the county will deploy mental health workers during disasters as part of its new emergency operations plan, Godley said. It will send behavioral health specialists to emergency shelters and work with community groups to track the needs of wildfire survivors.

“Many vulnerable populations will have special behavioral health needs, and that will be especially true for children,” Godley said.

Maia and Mia have moved three times since their trailer caught fire. A few weeks after Maia returned to school, she began seeing a school counselor. Mia was more reluctant to accept help and did not begin counseling until January 2018.

“Talking about it with a counselor gave me relief,” Maia said. “Now, I can sleep. But when I hear about the fire, I get nervous that it will happen again.”

Their mother, Erandy Bravo, encouraged her daughters to manage their anxiety by writing in a journal, but the sisters took a more practical approach to dealing with their trauma: They packed a bag with their school books, laptop and personal items. from

The girls attend anxiety management workshops at a local teen center and have become leaders of a support group. Maia, who graduated from high school in June, will study psychology when she starts at Santa Rosa Junior College in the fall. Mia, a class 10 student, wants to be an emergency dispatcher.

Still, the Bravo sisters are vigilant.

In their new home, when the sisters smelled smoke on their patio earlier this year, they soon realized it was coming from a neighbor’s chimney. They return home feeling safe.

This story was produced by KHN, which publishes California Healthline, the editorially independent service of the California Health Care Foundation.

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