In wildfire country, PTSD is dominating burned-out communities
“There’s something pretty twisted and poetic about trying to use calming breaths for fire anxiety when the air quality is bad.”
On August 21, 2020, Anna McKendry fled her family home in the Carmel Valley of California with her mother, three cats, two goats, nine chickens, and one parrot.
Three raging fires blazed perilously close to her house — the Carmel Fire only three miles away, the River Fire seven miles away, and the Dolan Fire twenty miles away in Big Sur.
“Being literally surrounded by three wildfires within 25 miles, living right on the edge of an open, uninhabited, wild space was terrifying,” McKendry tells Inverse.
In the days leading up to the family’s decision to evacuate, McKendry selected a handful of photos and tried to account for what her siblings, who live far away, might want to save from their childhood home. Then, as she loaded animals into the car, she took a photo of the house. She thought it might last time she saw it.
The Carmel Fire alone would blaze for 19 days, burning 6,905 acres and destroying 73 structures.
While the fire spared McKendry’s family home, the experience of fleeing her home and the constant reminders on social media took a toll on her mental health in the immediate aftermath and the months that followed.
She’s not alone. Climate change threatens mental health: New research suggests climate change affects the wellbeing of nearly 50 percent of people between the ages of 16 to 25. Young people reported feelings of “climate anxiety and distress” alongside “feelings of betrayal” related to inadequate state and federal responses.
The climate crisis is both a mental health crisis and a crisis of faith. Even hearing reports of distant disasters can trigger anxiety and grief that can “even be transmitted to later generations,” scientists report in a 2020 study published in Frontiers in Psychiatry.
The emotional consequences of climate change are also happening now — driving increased alcohol use, high-risk coping behavior, and mental health disorders.
And there’s no going back to normal in wildlife country. Fire season in the western United States is getting worse. The climate crisis has amplified an already fire-prone region. In California, fire season starts earlier and ends later. Some scientists argue there are two fire seasons in southern California: one that spans October through April and another that stretches from June through September.
How this ecological catastrophe affects the psyche varies. Acute events like McHendry’s evacuation can lead to incredible stress and unprocessed trauma, while prolonged exposure to the consequences of climate change can cause secondary trauma.
Experts say it doesn’t have to be this way.
What is climate anxiety?
Millions of people like McKendry — myself included — know what it’s like to live through wildfire season in the American West. In the past 35 years, it has grown more prolonged and severe due to higher temperatures and drought linked to the climate crisis.
“Fire season is longer; summers are increasingly hotter,” Koren Pollitt, a resident of South Lake Tahoe, tells Inverse from her fire-prone area in northern California.
“We didn't need fans in the summer up until ten or eleven years ago,” Pollitt says. “Now I have two window air conditioning units, and the nights just don't cool down anymore.”
As global warming drives frequent wildfires of unprecedented scale, people living in fire-prone areas increasingly experience some form of climate anxiety. It’s known by many names: ecological grief, biospheric concern; eco-anxiety.
“Eco-anxiety is the sense of anxiety and concern about the future that comes from concerns around environmental degradation and climate change,” Erica Dodds, COO of the Foundation for Climate Restoration, tells Inverse.
Pollitt knows it well.
“I lived in South Lake Tahoe for 20 years, and every year, I fear the absolute worst. Especially with the increase in residents and tourists,” Pollitt says.
She takes medication and practices meditation to manage her anxiety. This summer’s Caldor Fire burned more than 200,000 acres and encroached on Lake Tahoe late this summer, causing tens of thousands of residents to flee.
A 2020 study on mental health and the climate crisis found “a large number of people exposed to climate or weather-related natural disasters experience stress and serious mental health consequences,” including:
- Sleep disturbances
“Covid-related concerns created a widespread, vulnerable social climate this last year, and climate change/wildfires can exacerbate that collective sensitivity,” Jamie Bennett tells Inverse. Bennett is a licensed clinical social worker from Thriveworks, a nationwide service that provides mental health services.
“I couldn’t stop myself from clicking through Facebook albums and Twitter threads to read and see how the fires had impacted people,” McKendry says. “It upset me, but I couldn’t stop.”
She hit her breaking point after she was safely home when she came across a CalFire video on the Carmel Fire.
“I watched it and just sobbed the entire time. It was so scary to see the flames, the emotional community members scared to leave their homes and the firefighters working to protect people’s property,” McKendry says.
Wildfire and unprocessed trauma
People who flee wildfires can experience significant trauma in the aftermath of the experience.
“Those of us that wildfires have personally impacted have experienced forms of trauma,” Bennett explains. “We can be affected by unprocessed trauma at any time, even by the most subtle triggers.”
For McKendry, the trigger came from a CalFire plane, which unexpectedly flew above her house months after the fire.
“A few months after the fires, a random CalFire plane circled our house several times,” McKendry recalls. “I unexpectedly burst into tears.”
McKendry’s experience is common for survivors of natural disasters, according to Norman Blumenthal, licensed clinical psychologist at Ohel Children's Home and Family Services.
“Smoky air and the oddly specific smell of the inside of an N95 mask bring me right back.”
Blumenthal’s team provides mental health services to people after disasters, including the 2019 Woolsey Fire in Malibu, California, and the condo collapse in Surfside, Florida, in 2021.
“The interesting thing about trauma is that very often, people want to forget. They don't want to remember the horrible events that happen, especially if they survived,” Blumenthal tells Inverse.
But the brain inevitably “finds a way to bring you back to the trauma” in the form of flashbacks, he explains.
“Very common times for flashbacks to occur would be while people are going to sleep, or if you're driving in a car in a very familiar route, and you can let your mind wander and then suddenly an image of fire will appear,” Blumenthal says.
The sudden smell of smoke or the sensation of heat can also provoke these recollections.
“Smoky air and the oddly specific smell of the inside of an N95 mask bring me right back to packing up the house and all the emotions that come along with those memories,” McKendry says.
Wildfires and secondary trauma
Blumenthal says you don’t need to evacuate from a fire or lose your home to experience wildfire-related trauma.
“There's something called secondary trauma or vicarious trauma,” Blumenthal says. He experiences secondary trauma as a result of his work with survivors of natural disasters.
Simply living in a disaster-prone area — and at this point, this is most places — can make you susceptible. For example, even if you’re not at immediate risk of a fire, your air quality can be affected by smoke traveling from the inferno.
“It's like nothing could go back to normal.”
Secondary trauma can also occur when you read about climate disasters, or report on them, in my case.
“The closer you are to the event, the more profound the secondary trauma,” Blumenthal says.
Summer, who asked to be referred to by her middle name, is a former wildland firefighter living in South Lake Tahoe, California. Her parents live near the McKenzie River in Oregon — a state that has experienced increasingly devastating and unprecedented wildfires in recent years.
Last September, her parents evacuated from the Holiday Farm Fire. Summer woke up to a 6 a.m. text telling her that their lives were in danger.
“I woke up early the next morning around 6 a.m. and had several missed calls from my mom — the worst, most agonizing voicemail from my mother, crying that they were leaving with only the house animals,” Summer tells Inverse.
She texted her mother back, but she didn’t have service because many evacuees also attempted to use their phones. Summer’s brother confirmed that her parents safely arrived at an evacuation center — but she still worried about her childhood home burning to the ground.
Lacking information from official channels, she turned to Facebook, which “made things worse for me emotionally.” Her husband — a current wildland firefighter — was away at the time, fighting the North Complex Fire in California, leaving her without an in-person cistern for her emotions.
“There were a lot of rumors, missing people; it was mass hysteria,” she says. “My anxiety was through the roof. I wasn't able to get out of bed or really function beyond refreshing social media looking for any information.”
After that “emotional rollercoaster,” Summer learned her childhood home had survived the fire, but many of her friends’ homes did not. To this day, Summer experiences anxiety not as a result of her former experience as a wildland firefighter but as a result of the wildfire her parents fled.
She started online therapy to cope with her trauma when she began experiencing insomnia, panic attacks, and general anxiety after the wildfire.
What lingers most in her mind: the harrowing sound of her mom’s frantic voice.
“I can still hear my mom's voice in that voicemail when I think about it,” Summer says. “It's like nothing could go back to normal.”
As a California resident who grew up in this state, I’ve also experienced my share of secondary trauma related to wildfires.
I moved back to my home state in the fall of 2018 after years of living on the East Coast. I was excited to be home, spend time with my family, and bask in California’s famously sunny weather.
My happiness was short-lived. In November 2018, the Camp Fire tore through the town of Paradise in northern California, burning more than 150,000 acres, destroying upwards of 18,000 structures, and taking 86 lives in the official count. However, a more recent investigation suggests at least 50 more people perished due to the fire.
It was the deadliest wildfire in California’s history.
I was living in the San Francisco Bay Area at the time. The wind carried the smoke from the Camp Fire to my parents’ hometown more than 150 miles away.
For nearly two weeks, air quality levels in the Bay Area remained dangerously high, and health officials urged us to stay indoors. People began buying air purifiers and wondering if we should wear masks. The sun burned a neon red in the sky, covered in smoky orange hues. It felt like the apocalypse was here.
Every fire season since Paradise, I’ve become more anxious, triggered by one fire after another.
A brush fire on the side of the road billows as I drive down I-5, smoke filtering through my car’s air vent. I watch planes drop fire retardant on the newly charred hillsides. In 2019, a fire ignited in my small hometown, prompting my parents to evacuate and partly destroying the club where I played tennis in middle school.
Paradise was a wake-up call for not just me but for many other Californians, who began to grasp the reality of living in an area with increasingly destructive infernos.
“Since the Paradise fire, I have had a go-bag packed with irreplaceable items and documents, pet supplies and crates,” Summer says.
Why is fire season worse, and how can we prepare?
Fires have grown partly due to global warming, turning wildfire season from a typical four months into a six-to-eight month-long ordeal, reports the US Department of Agriculture. Conditions friendly to fire, like early snowmelt and late rain, are increasing.
Recent wildfire surges are partly due to accumulated dry brush, explains J. Hemlock, a former federal wildland firefighter for the US Forest Service. He is based in central Oregon and has put out fires all over the West Coast.
Hemlock says that fire suppression policies of the 20th century led to the accumulation of dry brush. Mix that dry brush with rising temperature and droughts, and the western U.S. turns into a tinderbox.
“From the 1940s through the 1990s, we had squashed every fire — ‘keep it small’ approach. What that did is add a ton of fuels — logs and undergrowth to all of our forests — that naturally would burn,” Hemlock tells Inverse.
Wildland firefighters also face their own unique mental health challenges.
“It's so hard sometimes, and you're not seeing your family, you're not in areas where you can make phone calls all the time to check on your loved ones,” Hemlock says.
See also: “Wildland firefighters are burning out” (2020)
Depression is frequent during the off-season when the workers are left without a job or a sense of purpose, he says. Hemlock argues that helping wildland firefighters deal with their mental health is essential if we’re going to fight off fires.
One solution could help alleviate the stress of both issues: Instead of laying off firefighters during the winter season, Hemlock says they should be employed to conduct controlled burns during the winter.
“What we need to be doing is controlled burns in the winter. The best time to do that is in the off-season when all these wildland firefighters are laid off,” he says.
(It’s worth noting that the US Forest Service and state agencies already conduct prescribed burns, but advocates are calling for more controlled burning. In September, California Governor Gavin Newsom signed a bill to help more individuals safely set prescribed burns.)
As wildfires become year-round, residents in these areas must also prepare their homes. Hemlock recently started a consulting business to help residents in rural areas of central Oregon prepare their homes and increase their resilience to wildfires.
“I want to take that experience and help other people be less afraid of these wildfires in their back doors,” he says.
McKendry, who evacuated from the Carmel Fire in 2020, also stresses how being prepared for a wildfire — like drawing up an evacuation plan — can ease anxiety somewhat.
“I remind myself that we’re as prepared as we can be, and that’s all we can ever do,” she says.
Cal Fire offers a checklist for residents evacuating from wildfires, including what to pack in a to-go bag, how to move animals, and how to prepare your house before you leave.
Strategies for climate anxiety
After the Carmel Fire, McKendry sought therapy to treat her fire-related anxiety, stemming from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and the survivor’s guilt of seeing her home make it through the fire. At the same time, many of her neighbors’ houses did not.
“I very much felt as though I ‘shouldn’t’ relate to those things, because sure, we evacuated, but we got to come home, and some of our neighbors didn’t have homes anymore — so why should I have so many big feelings about it?” McKendry says.
Her therapist was quick to validate her fears and explained to her survivor's guilt and PTSD. McKendry says therapy showed her how deeply the experience had affected her — as well as the value of deep breathing.
“There’s something pretty twisted and poetic about trying to use calming breaths for fire anxiety when the air quality is bad,” she says.
Andrew Bryant is a therapist based in Seattle. He also runs the Climate & Mind, a hub that offers psychological resources to the climate crisis. The site includes a map, allowing individuals in the U.S. to look up therapists in their area who focus on climate issues.
“I have seen an uptick in clients voicing concerns about climate change since the wildfire smoke seasons began around 2017,” Bryant tells Inverse.
As a resident in a wildfire-prone area, I know that my anxiety isn’t contained to the summer months. I’ll often find myself worrying about fires as early as April and scrolling through Twitter for any reports of early drought, which could signal a bad wildfire season ahead.
Blumenthal says, “the key difference between secondary trauma and primary trauma is that “secondary trauma is cumulative.”
There’s no single incident, but multiple traumas — like numerous fires over a more extended wildfire season — and “each one sort of chips away at your sense of security and safety.”
Sometimes, it gets so bad that I consider leaving California altogether, unable to imagine a future as fires creep closer to my home. Seeing this summer’s Dixie Fire, which has exploded into California’s second-largest wildfire, makes smoky skies and fiery infernos seem like an inevitable part of my future.
Laurie Singer says this “anticipatory anxiety” can occur among people living in fire-prone areas. Singer is a National Board Certified behavioral analyst based in Ventura County, California.
“It's an exaggerated fear of imminent danger,” Singer tells Inverse. It’s anticipating becoming anxious: You might start thinking it’s dry outside, which leads you to expect future fires that haven’t yet occurred. This can create irrational thoughts and a “sense of dread and fear.”
Ultimately, the therapists I spoke to stressed three ways to cope with wildfire anxiety:
- Lean into your feelings
- Find a sense of community
- Take action
In areas with frequent wildfires, Blumenthal says he shifts from “assuring people of safety” toward trying to “focus on what actions are we taking to ensure our safety.”
Small actions, such as contacting our politicians about improving readiness for wildfire safety or taking action on climate change, can make us feel less helpless, he says.
“You know, people ask me how I can do this kind of work,” Blumenthal says. “One of my answers is I don't just see horror and catastrophe — I see incredible human strength and unity and care. I see a lot of good stuff.”
This strength will be needed in the United States and beyond. According to a report released in October, in 2021 approximately 72 percent of countries experienced an increase in human exposure to wildfires.
More frequent wildfires challenge our community, but they also strengthen it. Ultimately, the best way to weather our collective climate anxiety may be to band together.