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Surviving the Colorado Wild Fire

Coping with Disaster

It was Friday, New Year’s Eve morning, December 31, 2021. The sun was shining, but the wind was gusting. I was walking my dog when I noticed a cloud of smoke in the distance. I thought nothing of it because it appeared to be a grass fire. After my dog completed her business, we headed back to my condo. It was astonishing how fast the smoke covered the neighborhood. As I sat at my desk, I noticed my eyes became irritated, and the smell of smoke filled the apartment. When I looked out my window, it shocked me to see black smoke throughout the entire neighborhood. Soon, there was a pounding at my door. The police politely but firmly ordered me out of the condo when I opened it. My neighbors were also in the corridor. All of us went back inside to gather a few things, and we left the condominium complex. 

These same neighbors drove us to Erie, away from the fires and smoke. We were on the way to my daughter’s house as they did the same. As we drove, we somberly viewed the dark smoke and flames. All of us were grateful to have escaped what turned out to be a major disaster.

We learned later that the county lost 1,000 homes were in flames. So miraculously, only two fatalities resulted from something that could easily take thousands of lives. However, the shock and trauma were unbearable.

I lived with my daughter- and son-in-law for four days and was ready to go home. 

The drive home was more shocking than the escape from the thick smoke. As we passed neighborhoods close to the condominium where I live, what came into clear view were entire neighborhoods burned down to the ground. In many places, there was nothing left standing. Just four days ago, beautiful, suburban homes occupied the spaces where, now, there was nothing but ash. I could not help but think, which has the feel and look of war. The only element missing from the total disaster was bombs and gunshots.

Miraculously, only two people died in the raging fire. Of course, any death is a tragedy, but it could have been worse.

In addition to the loss of life and homes, people lost valuables irreplaceable. Among these are family heirlooms, diaries written by grandparents and great-grandparents, and invaluable photographs, among many others.

When I arrived home, more than a little shaken from all that happened, I immediately understood that I was fortunate. My condominium community, with its two buildings and many apartments, was intact. The corridors had the smell of smoke, as did my unit. However, there was no destruction of my apartment and possessions. More than that, my family escaped with their houses spared and their lives intact.

Everyone I have spoken to about this wildfire states, almost uniformly, that the past year has been dreadful and has left all of us in a state of shock. Among those shocking things are the pandemic, political instability that threatens our democracy and freedom, economic volatility partly caused by the Coronavirus, and the vast numbers of hospitalizations and deaths because of this disease that remains ongoing. As part of this calamity, we must include the need to isolate ourselves in our homes to halt the spread of the disease.

Understanding the emotions and normal responses that follow a disaster or other traumatic event can help all of us cope with feelings, thoughts, and behaviors.

Recovering emotionally from disaster

*From The American Psychological Association, 2013

Disasters such as hurricanes, earthquakes, transportation accidents, or wildfires are typically sudden and overwhelming. Many people have no outwardly visible signs of physical injury, but there can be an emotional toll. It is common for people who have experienced disaster to have strong emotional reactions. Understanding responses to distressing events can help you cope effectively with your feelings, thoughts, and behaviors and help you along the path to recovery.

What are common reactions and responses to disaster?

Following a disaster, people frequently feel stunned, disoriented, or unable to integrate distressing information. However, once these initial reactions subside, people can experience a variety of thoughts and behaviors. 

Typical responses can be:

related stress.

How do I cope?

Fortunately, research shows that most people are resilient and can bounce back from tragedy. It is common for people to experience stress in the immediate aftermath. Still, most people can resume functioning as before the disaster within a few months. It is important to remember that resilience and recovery are the norms, not prolonged distress.

There are several steps people can take to build emotional well-being and gain a sense of control following a disaster, including:

When to seek professional help?

Persistent feelings of distress or hopelessness and you feel like you can barely get through your daily responsibilities and activities, consult with a licensed mental health professional such as a psychologist. Psychologists have the training to help people address emotional reactions to disasters such as disbelief, stress, anxiety, and grief and make a plan for moving forward. 

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