I’m still decompressing from the North Bay fires, but here are some thoughts on the experience.
- I’m grateful for CAL FIRE’s trust. It is a privilege to work with its Employee Support Services team and CISM leads. They are devoted, compassionate, hard-working people, without exception.
- If there was a big story coming out of our deployment, it was the dogs. Two years ago, chaplains brought their personal PTSD service dogs to the Rocky and Valley fires (also in the North Bay). We saw what a great comfort and ice-breaker they can be. So this time, we invited just about every trained service, therapy or comfort dog we knew about. The result
was that we had dogs present in base camp (which peaked at about 6,000 people) every day. We even took the most highly trained dogs, from Hope AACR, whose handlers were former first responders, out to public safety agencies and neighborhoods that burned. We also had a great response from PALS and others whose names I don’t have. The dogs helped people relax and sometimes seemed to be the key to lowering anxiety about telling their painful stories. As a result, all of us are thinking about how to integrate dogs – and their handlers, of course – into our responses (large or small).
- Hearing “thank you” from people who lost their homes and entire neighborhoods, was often difficult. For a few days, a crowd of up to 200 people with signs and
noisemakers stood on the corner by the fire camp at the county fairgrounds, cheering and waving at every fire vehicle that came or left. It was so overwhelming sometimes that I could not even look at them. I think the gratitude is hard because people in public safety tend to be perfectionists – it makes us good at the work – so we focus on what we did not accomplish. I found myself repeatedly urging firefighters, EMTs and others to “let it be both” – sadness at the tremendous losses, but pride in what was accomplished. My most difficult thank-you came from a little girl in Coffey Park, perhaps six years old. I gave her a CAL FIRE badge sticker and she looked me in the eye, saying, “Thank you for saving our houses and lives.” I had to turn around, take about 15 steps breathing deeply, before I could turn back, smile and say, “You’re welcome.” I really just wanted to go somewhere and cry. They deserve our tears.
- I communicated back and forth with Angela Leath, who heads peer support for the Las Vegas Fire Department. She is dealing with the aftermath of their horrendous shooting incident, so we traded ideas – what’s working, what’s not – about responding to a large incident. Our conversation helped me remember that we can expect many people too struggle with feelings of guilt – that they didn’t do enough, that they made wrong decisions, that they were not there. We know we can’t save every house and every life, but part of us – a good part – will always whisper that we should have.
- Exercise really helps, even when you are worn out. Eight or nine days into our deployment, I decided that the best thing I could do for myself would be the kind of hiking I ordinarily do every two or three days – three miles, with at least 25 lbs in my pack, at a fast pace (this keeps me in shape for firefighting and has done wonders for my health). Afterwards, I felt almost normal again. It was as if I’d punched a “reset” button in my body and brain.
- It was an incredible privilege to help distribute cash gift cards from the California Professional Firefighters’ foundation. We could give them to anyone who lost at least 25 percent of their home. Although a few people accepted them matter-of-factly, most seemed stunned when I explained what was in the envelope. Many big hugs resulted. Thousands of them have been given to fire victims in the North Bay.
- It seemed as though nearly everybody wanted to tell us their stories. That’s unprecedented, in my experience. Almost everybody – firefighters on the line, doing damage inspection, mopping up, in overhead management – stopped for a while to talk about how they were doing (especially when we had dogs!). That speaks both to the magnitude of the fires and the changing public safety culture. It is becoming okay to acknowledge how difficult this work can be.
- After doing and teaching this kind of work – crisis intervention and peer support – for more than a dozen years, I usually have some kind and gentle words for any situation. But three times in Coffey Park, I met firefighters who lost their own or family homes. For them, I had no words, just a lot of eye contact and big hugs. And that’s okay – if there is any time no words are needed, that’s it.
- We will be talking about, and healing from these fires for a long time. Until last month, the “career fire” for most people was the Valley fire in 2015. More than once, our team and others mentioned that we are still dealing with it. This year’s fires killed many more people and destroyed more than three times as many homes. And more than once, I heard someone ask the rhetorical – and scary – question, “Is this the new normal?”
- Something to be grateful for – because the fire happened at night, when people are home, most of their pets survived. That’s really good.