Coping with trauma: the psychological scars of the Camp Fire

A Santa Clara University psychology professor said the enormity of the destruction and devastation in Paradise can take an emotional toll on fire victim and leave psychological scars.

Images of the massive firestorm closing in on his neighborhood keep re-playing in Timo Kien’s head.

“When you are trying to fall asleep at night,” said Kien. “When you close your eyes it's almost like you can still see the flames. I’m happy my wife or the kids didn't see what I saw.”

Kien shot video from his car window as he was drove out of Paradise, stuck in gridlock the morning the camp fire erupted.

“Everything started to catch fire, all the buildings, all the trees to the right of me, to the left of me, everything was on fire,” said Kien. 

At one point, he thought to text his wife he wasn't going to make it but he did. Kien’s home was among the thousands destroyed. His family is now staying in Chico. At times, he can't help but feel sadness and heartbreak.

“I try to hold it together as best as I can and stay positive,” said Kien. “It seems like multiple times a day me and my wife hold each other and cry.”

Thomas Plante is a psychologist at Santa Clara University. He said, that's expected. He said, the fire victims will likely experience disaster-related trauma in the days and months to come.

“If you lost your home, you lost your car, you lost a loved one, it's going to take a long time to recover from that,” said Plante.

Memories can be easily triggered-by smoke or sirens. Plante said the longer the fire goes, the more traumatic it will be.

“Even those who are pretty resilient in general may start to crack as it keeps going seven days, eight days, nine days,” said Plante.

“If we can try to be kind, compassionate, sensitive to one another, we will do with the trauma as best as we possibly can,” said Kien. 

For Kien, as he faces the challenge of rebuilding, he's leaning on community support more than ever.

“Everyone has been so good,” said Kien. “Everyone keeps saying whatever you need it doesn’t matter. We will get it for you.”

It’s not just fire victims but all parties involved including first responders can experience trauma. The American Psychological Association posted information on the front page of its web site on how to recover from wildfires.

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