California Camp Fire Survivors Face The Horror All Over Again In 2020

Sep 13, 2020
Originally published on September 14, 2020 2:33 am

Linda Oslin and her husband lost everything when the Camp Fire raced into their neighborhood in Paradise, Calif., in the fall of 2018.

She's in her 70s — he in his 80s — and they decided they didn't have it in them to try to rebuild. That could take years. So they found a place for sale out of the woods and farther down the mountain near Oroville, Calif., where they've started to rebuild their lives.

Except for one thing.

They've since had to evacuate from three more wildfires, including this past week when the Bear Fire exploded near the town, burning an untold number of structures and claiming at least 10 lives.

"And every incident I organize a little more," Oslin says.

When she heard reports that the Bear Fire was burning into the village of Berry Creek, they didn't wait for the official evacuation call. They left, knowing that some of their neighbors died in 2018 because they couldn't get out of Paradise.

"Knowing how evacuation traffic can go, we were stuck in it in the Camp Fire, I said let's finish packing the vehicles, secure everything and just leave," Oslin says.

This time the Oslins are pretty sure their house is still standing — for now. They're not sure when they'll be able to go home though. They're staying again with the same friends who took them in after their harrowing Camp Fire escape. Anything from just the slight smell of smoke to the evacuation itself has triggered trauma for them.

"Well we're doing OK," Oslin says, trying to stay upbeat. "We do have our share of PTSD at times."

Researchers were only just starting to get a handle on the cumulative effects of trauma on California wildfire survivors from previous bad fire years like 2017 and 2018. And now, 2020.

"It's hard to imagine another fire not being a trigger for a lot of people," says Irva Hertz-Picciotto, professor of public health at the University of California-Davis.

Hertz-Picciotto, who also directs the university's Environmental Health Sciences Center, has spent much of the past two years interviewing Camp Fire survivors. She hopes to give policymakers better tools to help people recovering from disasters.

And she's researched plenty of them in her career.

But wildfires are starting to distinguish themselves even in this era of disasters such as hurricanes that can seem overwhelming in scale. Wildfires are proving to no longer be just once in a lifetime, big, traumatic events for a particular place.

"Now that we're in a situation where we can now expect this on an annual basis, that strikes me as an even bigger problem than other disasters, like the earthquake happened, or the volcano, and we had to rebuild," Hertz-Piccioto says.

She says we need to build back up our infrastructure so that wildfire survivors know they'll have things like safe, temporary housing and mental health support, which was lacking after the 2018 California fires.

Researchers also say bad wildfires like these on the West Coast are the latest signal that we shouldn't necessarily even be rebuilding or encouraging more development in places we know will burn. In the libertarian-leaning West, loose building codes and other factors have been attributed to an explosion in development in wild lands that are prone to fire.

Yet therein lies one of the biggest and thorniest issues facing the West, and many other parts of the country in this era of climate change. Many people are living in high fire risk areas in California and Oregon in particular because it's the only place they can afford to.

This quandary weighs on Linda Oslin's mind all the time. She and her husband intentionally found a new place to live and rebuild their lives that wasn't in the woods. They have three acres of open pasture. They cleared out all the trees around their house and even rebuilt the driveway so emergency vehicles can get in.

Still, here they are evacuated and they could lose their home again.

"It appears that if you live in California you really have no choice in the matter," Oslin says. "It does not matter any longer where you live."

So Oslin and her husband focus on what they believe they can control: being prepared and ready to evacuate to safety at all times.

"Just have a go bag," she says. "The one thing that saved our bacon was having all of our important papers."

Those important papers were about all they left with when fleeing the 2018 Camp Fire. It made things a lot easier in the aftermath, something they're prepared to do again should the worst happen with the Bear Fire.

Copyright 2020 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

In Butte County, Calif., at least 12 people have died in a wildfire there called the Bear Fire. It has forced the evacuation of parts of Paradise. Remember, this is a town almost entirely destroyed by the Camp Fire in 2018. That fire killed 85 people. NPR's Kirk Siegler reports many survivors of that fire are now reliving the horror.

KIRK SIEGLER, BYLINE: Linda Oslin and her husband lost everything in the Camp Fire. She's in her 70s. He's in his 80s. And they couldn't imagine rebuilding in Paradise. So they moved down the mountain to a property near Oroville, Calif., they thought would be safer. But they've since evacuated three separate times from wildfires, including now from the Bear Fire.

LINDA OSLIN: And every incident, I organize a little more.

SIEGLER: So when the Bear Fire was burning whole communities near them, they didn't wait for the official evacuation call. They left. And people died because they couldn't get out of Paradise back in 2018.

OSLIN: Knowing how evacuation traffic can go (laughter) - and we were stuck in it in the Camp Fire - I said let's finish packing the vehicle, secure everything and just leave.

SIEGLER: Now, this go around, they're pretty sure their house is OK. But they have no idea when they'll get to go home. They're actually staying again with the same friends who took them in after their harrowing Camp Fire escape. And all this - the dense smell of smoke, the fire, the evacuation - it triggers trauma.

OSLIN: Well we're doing OK, we do have our share of PTSD at times.

SIEGLER: Researchers were only just starting to get a handle on the cumulative effects of PTSD among Camp Fire survivors ranging from depression, anxiety, lack of sleep, usually triggered by even just the smallest things, like the smell of smoke. UC Davis public health professor Irva Hertz-Picciotto has spent much of the past two years interviewing Californians traumatized by wildfires.

IRVA HERTZ-PICCIOTTO: It's hard to imagine another fire not being a trigger for a lot of people.

SIEGLER: Hertz-Picciotto hopes her research will give policymakers a better sense of how to help people recover from disasters. And she's researched a lot of them. But wildfires are starting to set themselves apart. These aren't just one-time, big, traumatic events for a place.

HERTZ-PICCIOTTO: Now that we're in a situation where we can now expect this kind of on an annual basis, that strikes me as, really, an even bigger problem than other disaster, like, OK, the earthquake happened or the volcano or the flood or whatever and we had to rebuild.

SIEGLER: Hertz-Picciotto says we need to build back up our infrastructure so that wildfire survivors know they'll have things like safe temporary housing and mental health support, which was lacking after the 2018 fires. Researchers like her also say bad wildfires like these on the West Coast are the latest signal that, maybe, we shouldn't be rebuilding or encouraging more development in places we know will burn.

And herein lies one of the biggest and thorniest issues facing the West and many other parts of the country in this era of climate change. Many people are living in high fire risk areas, in California and Oregon in particular, because it's the only place they can afford to. This quandary weighs on Linda Oslin's mind all the time. She and her husband intentionally looked for a place to live that wasn't in the woods. They have three acres of open pasture. They cleared out all the trees around their house and even rebuilt the driveway so emergency vehicles can get in. And yet, here they are evacuated. And they could lose their home again.

OSLIN: It appears that if you live in California, you really have no choice. It does not matter any longer where you live.

SIEGLER: So Oslin says she and her husband are focused on what they think they can control. She wants everyone listening to know that they should prepare and be ready for disasters that are only going to get worse.

OSLIN: You need to be just cognizant of that and prepared. Just have a go bag. The one thing that saved our bacon was having all of our important papers.

SIEGLER: Having those papers may save them again should the Bear Fire do the unthinkable in 2020.

Kirk Siegler, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.