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A Personal–Professional Experience of Losing My Home to Wildfire: Linking Personal Experience with the Professional Literature

Abstract

This article reports on the author’s personal–professional experience of losing a home to wildfire. The article is presented as a self-conducted narrative case study. The author used for narrative raw data 400,076 words from her blog-text that covered the period from the evening of the fire (June, 28, 2012) through 2 year and 3 months post-fire (September, 2014). Thirteen themes were selected based on frequency (>10 %, n = 7) and salience (n = 6). The results echo the extant literature on disaster recovery. The themes greater than 10 % included: the presence of and guilt induced by victim blaming; the overwhelming emotional and logistical aspects of property loss; concerns about both economic and financial issues; a need for understanding a “normal” recovery trajectory; interconnections of community and individual recovery; forced redefinition of the self and the importance of recognizing closure as elusive and multifaceted. Themes selected for salience included the importance of privacy; the difficulty of rapid schema development; lack of knowledge as to how to engage in ritual greetings; the negative effects of disclosure on others; the importance of having a federal disaster declaration; and that anniversary date anticipation exceeded the anniversary itself. The author concludes that resilience and psychological equilibrium are attainable, particularly with counselling and social support. The author also calls for more research on “normal” recovery, particularly process-oriented research that helps define the trajectory of individuals and families who struggle but survive disasters without significant post-disaster pathology.

Introduction

Monday, April 13, 2013, 9 months after the fire. My concept of home is now in three places. It resides with our house that died in the fire, it resides with the temporary house where we are living and it resides in our replacement house-in-the-making. Between the three, there is not enough continuity to have a reliable concept of home.

On June 28, 2012 at 4:24 pm, our home burned down in Idaho’s Charlotte Fire. In this article, I seek to convey the very personal experience of being a victim of a disaster with the scholarly perspective of being a traumatic stress researcher. The article is both reflective and academic but always subjective. To convey the story in the first person and to analyze that same story from a scholarly perspective caused me to balance story and analysis linearly, going back and forth between voices of personal and professional. Sometimes the transition is rough but that in and of itself, helps tell the story of being a mental health professional that experienced the total destruction of my home.

Background of the 2012 Charlotte Fire

The fire began about 2:30 pm and by late afternoon over 1,000 people were evacuated from the largely rural area. No one died or was badly hurt. The fire raged over 1,038 acres of public and private land consuming 60 homes, 29 other structures, farms, pastures, and wildlife habitat (Gates 2012).

Perhaps because it was concurrent with the massively destructive Waldo Canyon Fire in Colorado Springs, there is little publically available information on the Charlotte Fire. A month long multi-agency investigation determined the fire was human caused but no names were released. A generally accepted theory among the public was that a construction worker had followed improper work safety procedures. Burned and partially burned houses and other structures exceeded $23 million (equilibrated to national average, Council for Community and Economic Research 2014). The cost for fighting the fire exceeded $2 million. The local Red Cross spent $30,000, The United Way $6,255. Information is absent for the costs of crisis responding or recovery and its economic impact even though people took extended, often unpaid, leave from their jobs and there was an influx of insurance money.

In response to the fire, individuals, organizations and businesses offered generous assistance but often access to assistance was known only by word of mouth. We received a shovel and a hose because my spouse bumped into a person with a pick-up truck of them at the post office. The Idaho State Journal published a weekly series, “Up From the Ashes” that told fire victim’s stories, one of the few ways victims knew what happened to each other.

The Pocatello Office of the Idaho Department of Environmental Quality was active from crisis to long-term recovery. They visited burned homes, coordinated with the dump, offered hazardous waste and unexploded ordinance disposal, monitored air and water quality and gave reliable information. Idaho’s Voluntary Organizations in Disasters was activated. From it grew the Long Term Recovery Organization (LTRO) which robustly supported victims with timely, accurate information, case management, cash gifts, and proper management of donations. They had a wood chipper and a dirt stockpile for rebuilding where dirt could be deposited or taken. Volunteers removed dead trees and distributed new ones. The LTRO stayed connected with victims though letters, email and telephone. They hosted two “get togethers” and a 1-year anniversary picnic.

The Awkward Position of Being a Victim with Professional Knowledge

Even now at the comfortable distance of 2 years and 3 months from the fire, it is hard for me to separate the victim from the professional self. Being an early author on the vicarious and secondary effects of helping others and the developer of the ProQOL, my knowledge of compassion fatigue, secondary traumatic stress, compassion satisfaction, vicarious traumatization and vicarious transformation (Huggard et al. 2013; Naturale 2007; Stamm 1999, 2010; U.S. Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration Disaster Technical Assistance Center 2013) made my place in the disaster environment complicated. I was not a professional responder but at times I could not help thinking like one. I knew the potential risks and benefits from responding to the disaster. I knew the research and clinical knowledge showed us that helpers can be changed positively and negatively by the experience of helping. Short term, people can experience compassion fatigue which includes two parts, burnout and secondary traumatic stress. Those who experience burnout may feel exhausted, unappreciated and feel nothing they can do will make a difference. A few may experience secondary traumatic stress which is characterized by fear and feelings that the trauma of those they are helping is happening to themselves. Sometimes disaster workers face real, potentially traumatizing experiences directly but secondary traumatic stress is related to responding to the potentially traumatizing experience of another person. There are also benefits of helping, compassion satisfaction, which can include feelings of altruism and happiness to be able to help relieve the suffering of others. When the positive changes are long-term, they are called vicarious transformation (Huggard et al. 2013). I wanted people to be careful. I wanted the helpers to be safe from the risks we could pose to them.

In those early, confused post-disaster days, I worried about the insurance adjustors who were flying to multiple wildfire sites across the West viewing the devastation as they worked on claim after claim. Our hotel housed fire victims and adjustors. I found myself talking with them about the psychological risks they faced.

At the same time I was concerned that the adjusters were suffering from responding to the suffering of fire victims across the West, I was suffering. I remember giving an impromptu compassion fatigue and self-care “mini seminar” in the hotel lobby. When we turned to go to our respective rooms, I felt physically and psychologically disoriented. It was as if the fire divided me into two: the professional self who knew about disasters and the personal self who was overcome by one. Both selves were totally present and appropriate for the situation.

My spouse and I followed our habits of 35 years. Together we tended our past, he tended our present and I tended our future. I built a house and furnished it for us, he made sure we had food to eat and the bills were paid. My professional knowledge did predisposed me know to use counseling and our social support. Nothing prepared me for the reality we faced and certainly my cloak of professionalism did not protect us from the anguish of those first days.

Methods

Friday, May 9, 2014, 22 months after the fire. When written, words convey meaning and carry their own life. Not written down they get forgotten and lost. In these years following such a life-changing event as losing everything to a wildfire it is important that we not lose anything else. We need to record our words. With them we rebuild our lives.

Participant and Data Source

In this single case presentation, I am both subject and researcher. I used primary source data drawn from my blog writing. The timeframe covers from the evening of the fire (June 28, 2012) through 2 years and 3 months post fire (September 2014). In all, 477 posts yielded 400,376 words for analysis. The narrative is publically available at http://www.building1home.com.

Procedure

A structured, but informal thematic approach was used to review the data. I generated a list of 25 search terms that my memory suggested would arise in multiple blog entries. Additional terms were added during the initial search. Upon repetitive searches themes were identified. Some, like victim blaming, were established apriori and frequency counts were taken. Others like anniversary dates were identified by the frequency of their appearance in the blog. Using this semi-structured review of the data, thirteen themes were selected based on frequency (>10 %, n = 7) and salience (n = 6).

The themes mentioned in more than 10 % of the entries include: the presence of and guilt induced by victim blaming; the overwhelming emotional and logistical aspects of property loss; concerns about both economic and financial issues; a need for understanding a “normal” recovery trajectory; interconnections of community and individual recovery; forced redefinition of the self and the importance of recognizing closure as elusive and multifaceted. Themes selected for author-perceived salience included the importance of privacy; the difficulty of rapid schema development; lack of knowledge as to how to engage in ritual greetings; the negative effects of disclosure on others; the importance of having a federal disaster declaration; and that anniversary date anticipation exceeded the anniversary itself.

Each observation includes date, time post-fire, text and analysis. The literature selected for analysis was based on my perception of its clarity in relationship the observation and is not comprehensive.

Results and Discussion

Privacy: Privacy is Important and Works Best with a Human Buffer

Sunday, July 22, 2012, 24 days after the fire. Immediately after the fire our friends asked what we needed. It was hard to figure that out. I just wanted to duck my head and not talk to anyone. [My sister and our best friend watched over us.] After a bit my sister guided me to understanding that people wanted to help and I had to let them. We made a “wish list.” Everyone was respectful of our need for privacy; they came quietly and left gifts at our hotel door. Saturday November 12, 2012, 4 months post fire. [From] extreme events arises what is called “trauma tourism.” It is not intended to be unkind or disrespectful but it can be intrusive. People want to come and see the devastation. The stress of a steady stream of people looking at your misfortune adds to the burden of despair.

A key factor in recovery from disaster is safeguarding well-being and privacy of the victims, especially in shelters (Aldrich and Benson 2008; Hobfoll et al. 2007; Watts 2000). Responders may become gatekeepers. Our gatekeepers, my sister and our best friend, interceded with others on our behalf but they also interceded with us on behalf of others. We needed personal privacy but we also needed to be connected. Government and relief agency press liaisons may become gatekeepers, shielding individuals from publicity onslaughts. While maintaining the value of a free press, the current culture of reporting of tragedies balances rapid, factual reporting with sensitivity to the victims (Associated Press 2013; Hight and Smyth 2003).

“Dark Tourism” can emerge. Seemingly innocuous, the flood of “trauma tourists” who want to see the recent disaster can create emotional and logistical mayhem. Some “Dark Tourism,” is heritage tourism such as visiting a battlefield museum but it can be about people traveling to a current disaster site and whose interest borders on voyeurism (Chemtob 2000; Lelo and Jamal 2013; Robb 2009). The County was our gatekeeper, closing roads for 3 days. Public safety personnel with great sensitivity escorted evacuated victims to their homes. More personnel were needed to keep onlookers out of the active fire zone. As soon the roads opened and for weeks thereafter, they were thronged by people who traveled to view the damage making it nearly impossible for evacuees to reach their homes and for demolition work to be conducted.

Rapid Schema Development: It Does Not Matter What You Want (>10 % of entries)

Monday, September 30, 2012, 3 months after the fire. We have a trip to go on toward the end of October….[I was missing a travel item] and it was a little emotional crisis. I say little because it was. Just because it is little does not mean it was unimportant. It is the…gut wrenching moment when you realize yet another thing is gone….So like Tantalus, we are doomed to repeat this process over and over. We try to recognize it in ourselves and in each other. Bothersome activities that in the past might have led to being grumpy are now acts of love trying to help the other with the little crisis that means so much.

A few days after the fire my spouse steadfastly refused to do something I though was important. In a fit of pique, I said, “You don’t get to do what you want; you have to do what I want because if it is important to one of us, even if it makes no sense to the other, we have to do it.”

An effect of disaster is the loss of day-to-day ritualized behavior like eating breakfast or brushing your teeth. Deritualization changes your ability to act and challenges how you make meaning in your world (Janoff-Bulman 1992; Thornburg et al. 2007). In normal settings, schemas for new environments develop slowly merging the self, their choice to be in that setting and what they learn about it from others (Rousseau 2001). Disaster-related schema development takes place in an unbidden setting moving at such a furious pace that it may hinder sense-making.

Ritual Greetings: How Are You, Fine, How Are You?

Friday, November 2, 2012, 4 month after the fire. When someone I know walks up and says, “Hi, how are you! It is good to see you.” I don’t know what the socially appropriate response it. “I am great, my house burned to the ground along with 65 of my neighbor’s houses. How are you doing? It is great to see you.”…You are not being asked about how you are, it is simply a [ritual] greeting and it has a prescribed form. “How-are-you-fine-and how-are-you-fine.” Each time…I was faced with a decision. I could stay within the ritual and thus not mention the fire or I could break the ritual and live with the confusion that follows….I wondered if I did [not] mention it, if there was another social contract broken….That version goes something like this, “I saw Beth the other day. It was nice to see her.”...“Isn’t it awful about her house?” “What do you mean?” “You did not know? There was a disaster in her community and her home burned to the ground along with 65 others.” “I don’t understand, she did not say anything about it.”

Telling one’s trauma story can be useful. A general review of the professional and lay literature suggests most professional and self-help literature is either (a) practical steps of telling others (e.g. patients, friends, colleagues, employers) bad news or (b) a form narrative therapy (Calhoun et al. 2014; Frattaroli 2006; Pennebaker 1997). Information about casual interactions seems largely absent. Research in HIV/AIDS disclosure may provide clues. Dima et al. (2014) found that disclosure is multidimensional and depends on the intent of disclosure and to whom the disclosure is made.

Effects of Disclosure on Others: We Have to Let Others Catch Up with Our Sorrow

Friday, March 28, 2014, 1 year and 9 months after the fire. I don’t know when we learned how important it was to slow down and let people have a moment when they found out about our house burning. We have lived with our fire for 638 days. To us it is factual history….For someone who just learns of our fire, the moment is fresh and right then. We tend to say, “Oh, our house burned down so we are building a new one now.” We are so excited about the new house….To us the focus is on finishing the house….To the listener the conversation suddenly becomes one of “They lost their house to a wildfire.” We have to let people catch up with us. We become the nurturers and they the ones who need to be reassured in their horror…scary things suddenly become more real.

Our fire evoked empathy for us but also challenged our listener’s assumptions of a benevolent world (Janoff-Bulman 1992). We bore their incredulity and pain when they learned about our fire. Colleagues, family, friends and even strangers needed to take time to process what we had already incorporated into our understanding of our life. It was hard for us to remember to wait for the enormity of the idea to hit, for them to process it and then for us to offer them our empathy as they tried to imagine what it would be like and judge their feeling of personal threat.

Victim Blaming: There is Victim Blaming (>10 % of Entries)

Saturday, August 11, 2012, 44 days after the fire. After the initial shock to the community and the immediate support to the victims, post-disaster pustules arose…About the third day after the fire a few people started saying things to me like....“Well, when you rebuild, you should make sure not to have so many trees around.”.…Others said it right out. “If you had cut down those [trees] and put in a lawn your house would not have burned.”….I was left standing in the ash asking myself why I had done this terrible thing.

Just World Theory (Jannof-Bulman 1992) predicts that victim blaming serves as a protective factor for the observer by putting psychological distance between themselves and the victim. “If I am just like the person who this bad thing happened to, it could happen to me.” Placing the responsibility on the victim allows the person to be more confident the bad thing would not happen to them thus bolstering their belief in a just world. Victim blaming may reach its peak when the observer belongs to the same “group” as the victim (Correia et al. 2012). Our fire affected a few hundred of a few thousand people in its path and based on Correia, that put us at an enhanced risk for being blamed.

Property Loss: The Loss and Replacement is All Consuming (>10 % of Entries)

Monday, June 30, 2014, 2 years and 1 month after the fire. [To save money a] lot of the furniture and cabinets we bought…[came] in flat boxes….Today I tried to put together a kitchen cart….The first step was to attach the handle, four wood pegs and two Allen screws. I was off on a roll. Step 2. Attach A3 (shelf) to A1 and A2 (legs) using screws B2. Nothing to it. Very straightforward. Put legs on shelf with screws. Not so fast. There are two shelf A3s and you cannot tighten the first A3 until the second A3 is in place….You cannot tighten the screws in the second A3 either. You have to attach top, A4 and THEN you can tighten everything. I managed to wrestle the first leg of the second A3 when the legs all spun. I was sitting with a lap full of cart with four legs up, none of them mine.

Along with physical injury and fear of death, property loss is a predictor of long-term symptomology (Briere and Elliott 2000). Replacing possessions has multiple ramifications. Inventorying what is gone is time consuming and emotionally difficult. Replacement can be difficult even with insurance. Practically, it is a chore to manage so much shopping and setting up a new household. Nothing is familiar and simple tasks may take extra effort to complete.

Psychologically, personal property is related to one’s identity (Carroll et al. 2009) and insurance replacement at fair market value can feel unjust (Gergen 1993). Sayre (1994) found that psychological value of items increased compared to their pre-disaster value. Things salvaged from the rubble were the most psychologically valuable regardless. We learned from our own and our neighbor’s stories that things had two values, emotional and monetary. Sometimes these aligned and sometimes not. Reconciling these sometimes brought anguish or anger directed at the insurance companies.

Economic and Financial Issues: Money is a Roller Coaster (>10 % of Entries)

Wednesday, June 25, 2014, 2 days before the second anniversary of the fire.

Before the fire we were blessed with…resources….Financially we were so resourced that we had a whole house of things and a house itself that could burn. I am not being ironic about a grim twist of the cosmic play; I recognize fully that being able to own a home and have things in it puts us in a small and very privileged percent of the world’s population….When we left home on that Thursday afternoon of June 28, 2012 with the Charlotte Fire racing toward our house, we did not have to wonder where we could sleep that night or have fear in the coming days of not being able to afford housing. Sunday December 2, 2012, 5 months after the fire. We are conservative about the amount of credit we use. Our mortgage…was $144,000 and our car payment is $172 a month. That’s it. No more debt. Now we don’t even have that much since we used the house insurance money to pay off the mortgage and the car…[why] had my credit score dropped precipitously. What happened?…The replacement shopping….What they don’t know is that I have an insurance check in the bank that pays for all of those things.

Our roller-coaster experience with money aligns with research on insured homeowners. Our credit score dropped but rebounded, we paid off all debts, and while in temporary housing for a year paid no rent. Our net worth increased because the cost of building the replacement house exceeded the appraised value of the original house. Even so, money was a constant worry. Most studies link lower SES with longer recovery trajectories (Masozeraa et al. 2007). Gallagher and Hartley (2014) examined Katrina survivors across Social Economic Status (SES) and found modest credit cards use, a very small drop in credit scores and major debt reduction from insurance money echoing a 20 year-old economics study showing communities posted losses but also gained from the infusion of insurance money even when there was an overall net loss (Guimaraes et al. 1993). The slower trajectory for lower SES may be due in part to insurance: 95 % of homeowners have insurance although about 30 % are underinsured (Klein 2011) but only 37 % of renters have insurance (Insurance Information Institute 2014).

Recovery Trajectory: We Asked Ourselves, Are We Doing Ok? (>10 % of Entries)

We Are All Turtles August 8, 2013, 1 month after the fire. Those of us who carry our homes as memories are turtles….We can pull our heads and feet into our shells and close out the world when we need. When we are ready to move, we simply unfold our legs and stick out our heads, pick up the house we hold in our minds, and go forward. Thursday July 25, 2013, 1 year and 1 month post-fire, facing more than 6 months for our replacement house. A year and a month after the fire the yearning [for home] is just as strong as it was but it has better manners. It does not pop up when you least expect it flooding us with emotion. We can find succor in the yearning because we know the yearning will be fulfilled. Our place on the earth, in a space that envelopes us and protects us, filled with things of daily tasks and with things that delight us with their beauty is real. It is not illusory as it felt for so long. We are going home….The yearning for our home that died in the fire transformed into the yearning for meaning. It became yearning for time with each other. It became yearning for things good and true. It became yearning for being with others. It became yearning for life and for love. It was yearning for meaning. After we understood that our yearning was not bound by time or place we found meaning and understanding of our fire-wrought world.

There is copious sample-based research on short, middle and long-term recovery for those who develop post-disaster pathology. Less is known about psychologically robust recoveries. Some researchers believe estimates of future problems may be inflated based on early assessment of disaster victims where estimates are as high as 90 % for people directly exposed (Bonanno et al. 2010). The resiliency and less pathologized literature show >50 % of adults regain psychological equilibrium between several months and 1–2 years (Bonanno et al. 2002, 2010; La Greca et al. 2002). Bonanno (2004), using an individual differences approach found the most common path one of healthy adjustment. We need more process-based research on the trajectory of “normal” recovery.

Federal Disaster Declaration Status: It Matters if Yours is Declared

Wednesday, September 10, 2014, 2 years and 2 months after the fire. So there we sat there, almost a year after the fire, trying to take in the fact that we were un-insurable for our replacement house. Our fire was not “listed” as a federal disaster. Thus, we were “officially” responsible for our old house burning to the ground. How did I burn my house? What did I do that made my house one of the 66 that burned? How was I individually responsible? The answer is that I was not. My house did not burn because I fell asleep with a burning cigarette. It did not burn because I was using candles and forgot. It did not burn because I was irresponsible with my wiring. It burned because there was a raging fire that started two drought-ridden ridges away and the wind blew up-slope and the native vegetation on federal and private land around us was so dry it snapped when you touched it. My house burned because it was in the path of the fire.

The Charlotte Fire was not a federally declared disaster. Under the Stafford Act (Robert 2007) states can request federal help if “effective response is beyond the capabilities of the state and the local governments.” Support for individuals, state and local governments, and non-profit organizations provide infrastructure and psychological recovery assistance.

It is not clear why our fire was not a Federally declared disaster. National research indicates there are financial and political implications to disaster declarations (Garrett and Sobel 2003). In the Charlotte Fire the decision may have been based on the belief that there were sufficient local resources. Some questioned this assertion, particularly in regard to the city’s budget. Driven by the Charlotte Fire, 2012 per capita spending rose 14 % dropping by 23 % the year after the fire, a year when there were considerable education and health spending cuts (Service Level Report 2013).

The lack of Federal disaster recognition impacted organizations but also individuals who were blocked from disaster-related programs. For us, the Federal income tax assistance program would have made a difference because it allows for emergency access to retirement funds and adjustments in tax schedules and loss declarations. Insurance for our replacement house was denied or quoted at considerably higher rates because we were individually responsible for a “total loss claim.” Many companies determine that total loss claims in a federally listed disaster are not caused by the individual but are the fault of the individual claimant in unlisted disasters.

Community and Individual Recovery: Separate but Intertwined (>10 % of Entries)

Saturday, July 27, 2013, 1 year and 1 month after the fire. After the fire when people asked us how we were doing and I always said we were doing well. We were doing well. Well is relative when it comes to disaster. Surviving each day without being completely overcome by despair or anger or being paralyzed or pretending that nothing happened is doing well….Moving forward in a trauma-wrought world each step toward recovery seems like the next since you are embedded in the event. The changes of recovery are subtle….There is one no moment when everything suddenly and completely becomes OK. There is no one moment when things are not changed. The small unfolding steps are like breathing, elusive and ever present. Sometimes something takes your breath away and you notice the change but usually you just breathe.

Underlying community recovery is critical to the community’s readiness to support disaster recovery (Norris et al. 2007). Four key articles converge recognizing the needs of individuals within the community is irrevocably liked to the community itself (Norris and Stevens 2007; Hobfoll et al. 2007; Norris et al. 2002a, b). As Norris and Stevens conclude, “readiness and recovery require social as well as individual change” (p. 327).

Post-disaster resilience and migration prevention are related to social capital (Aldrich 2012). Important social capital may be overshadowed and poorly used particularly in the face of poverty. Government and organizations that need to quickly rebuild infrastructure may move faster than individuals. Consequently, decisions made at the community level may leave individual victims feeling frustrated, betrayed and disillusioned (The Natural Hazards Center 2005).

Redefined Self Concept: We are Redefined by the Fire (>10 % of Entries)

Monday, February 18, 2013, 8 months after the fire. The fire redefines us and we must go along with the process. The fire, hungry and driven but not discriminating…still burns in our souls. You can see it in our eyes. We are not defined by the fire, what is burning inside of us is the experience of the fire as our own personal experience. When you look in our eyes you will see that we redefine that fire in our bellies as the fire of life and it warms us now as it will until we pass from this life.

Traumatic stress is so powerful it is not an option not to change (Stamm 1999). These changes require reevaluation of basic schemas, including spirituality (Kusner and Pargament 2012; McCann and Pearlman 1990). Deliberative rumination may be associated with posttraumatic growth and intrusive rumination with negative psychological outcomes (Triplett et al. 2012). Repeated consumption of media on the disaster can increase post disaster distress (Pfefferbaum et al. 2014). This may affect intrusive rumination interfering with appropriate reevaluation of oneself in the context the disaster experience.

Anniversary Dates: Our Anniversary Dates were Marked but Not Traumatic

Sat June 24 2nd anniversary. I don’t have a precedent for the second anniversary of the complete obliteration by wildfire of your house and life habits. In fact, I did not have a precedent for any of the days starting…[with] the day of the fire….[Today] It was a quiet day….[Having been in our replacement house one day] we only have a bed for furniture right now,…so we ate lunch there. Afterwards I was reading and my spouse resting. Later I woke up and he was still napping. He awoke and we just lay peacefully there appreciating the cold, wet, summer rain wind that blew in our windows….I looked at my phone and…said quietly, “It is 4:24.” And it was gone….[That night we baked a cake.] My spouse brought two candles. One was a 2, for the second anniversary of the fire and one was a 0 for the start of our anniversaries here in this new house.

Anniversary reactions are expected and well documented clinically (Hamblen et al. 2003). However, the research is thin, particularly explanatory research (Chow 2010). For us, the anticipation of the anniversary consumed more psychological resources than the actual anniversary did. On the first anniversary we planned and followed through a family trip. We were busy when the “moment” passed. Still not moved into a replacement home, the anticipation of the second anniversary was difficult but the anniversary itself was not.

Closure: We Needed to Bring Closure to Our Long-Term Recovery (>10 % of Entries)

Friday, June 27, 2014, 1 day before the 2nd anniversary of the fire. And for the first time in 1 year and 364 days, I closed our own curtains on our own window and went to bed. Thus ended our recovery from the June 28, 2012 Charlotte Fire. Tomorrow we enter a new year without the fire as a constant companion. We will always have her as a companion but we will no longer work [daily] to recover from her scourge by finding a replacement house or replacement things. They are replaced. We are re-placed. We have found our place again. The hungry fire, in its mad gambol driven by its own heat this way and that eating this and leaving that, forced us to redefine us and our lives. We are through redefining who we became during this confusing period of temporary housing and temporary things. It is permanency we have yearned for and tonight, as I climb into my new bed in my new room in my new house I feel how they are so much a reflection of us—both before and after the fire—that they are not new.

This little closure was a bridge from our two-year temporary post-fire life to our permeant post-fire life. Little is known about those who make their own healthy way to recovery (Bonanno 2004). Clearly resilience, particularly being effective despite being fearful, transforming helplessness into helpfulness and good problem solving must be present to make the journey from crisis to psychological equilibrium (Napoli 2007). Where does closure sit? It sits uneasily in the kitchen chair. My mother called it “the closing of an era” meaning it should be noted and remembered because it was important and that because of it, things in the new era would be different.

Regathering Our Sense of Place in this New, Fire-Wrought Life

Thursday, July 14, 2014, 2 years and 1 month after the fire. [Having finished our house] I have been single-mindedly plowing through putting matching finishes on our [flat box and junk store furniture.] My spouse, upon seeing the dining room table set up with our new-to-us old Queen Ann chairs commented, “It is good. It looks like it is supposed to look.” Without the fire as our history…having someone give a lackluster, “It looks like it is supposed to look,” might be less than a positive statement. With our history, it was music to my ears. I had achieved what I set out to achieve, make our lives feel like they were supposed to.

There is no way I can summarize what I learned or what we, as professionals, should know to help others or even ourselves through disasters such as wildfire. Some of the points I discussed are well known and knowable in advance of disaster responding. There will be property loss. Rapid change and victim blaming are predictable and perhaps unpreventable. As a field, we are clear that there are individual and community aspects of responding and recovery. I think it is important that we add to our knowledge what economics can teach us. It can be easy to set the economic aspect of disasters aside to deal with mental health yet they are irrevocably linked. The literature is filled with documentation of post-disaster differential resource access that is related to pre-disaster socioeconomic status. In our fire, I expected people with fewer resources to struggle. Because we were deeply resourced financially and in human capital, I was surprised at the difficulties we experienced navigating the economic aspects of our recovery from insurance claims, to purchasing replacement items, to taxes and future insurability.

Before the fire, I would not have thought about privacy, ritual greeting and the effects of disclosure on others. I still do not understand how best to manage ritual greetings and the prohibitions against breaking the set patterns which do not easily incorporate important announcements such as being a disaster victim. I like to think that I am more sensitive to others who have experienced profound loss. I like to think that my experience has shown me that privacy is important and that wanting to help may be more about me than it is about the person I want to help. I would like to think I can be a better listener when someone discloses to me that they have experienced a tragedy. I hope I will not need for them to nurture my understanding of what happened to them. I should take responsibility for understanding that, not ask the victim to be responsible for my understanding.

The most difficult things for me to understand from a personal or professional perspective relate to the concept of closure. The fire will never have closure but I need closure to live day-to-day in a post-disaster world. I need ordinary time. I need to pick up a plate and not have to think, “I will put my toast on this plate. I did not have this before the fire. I had to buy it because my old plate burned.” I want closure because I want to be in charge, not the fire. Yet, I do not like the idea that I might close myself off from this life event and miss its meaning.

I think the best I can make of it using my experience to revisit the literature is that closure is not a thing. Closure, like our feelings that yearn for it or stave it off, is organic, dynamic and fluid. I can point to things that we have closure on. We spent 2 years cataloging, filing claims for, repurchasing and possessing our home and the things in it. Most days included some task related to replacements or putting life on hold waiting for replacement. Moving into the replacement house with our replacement things brought closure to that replacement phase. It did not bring closure to the fire. What I have come to believe is that the event forces us into a place where we expect or desire closure so profoundly closure itself becomes larger than life. The discussion of closure would not even emerge unless it was bookended by the trauma. Ordinary life has closures and things left unclosed and things that just do not matter enough to warrant closure. Our fire changed that for us but it is also not powerful enough to change the ebb and flow of ordinary life with its subtle closures and lack of closures. Viewed that way, I can make sense of my need to have closure and my desire not to close such an important part of my life.

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Acknowledgments

The author thanks the following people for their extensive and generous assistance to our fire recovery: my sister, friend and colleague, Amy C. Hudnall; our friend and colleague, Neill F. Piland; our General Adjustor from Travelers Insurance J. Erin Sweasy and Bruce Olenik, the Pocatello Regional Manager of the Idaho Department of Environmental Quality and the Charlotte Fire Volunteer Long-term Recovery Organization.

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The author declares that the author has no conflict of interest.

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Stamm, B.H. A Personal–Professional Experience of Losing My Home to Wildfire: Linking Personal Experience with the Professional Literature. Clin Soc Work J 45, 136–145 (2017). https://doi.org/10.1007/s10615-015-0520-y

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Keywords

  • Wildfire
  • Individual disaster recovery
  • Compassion fatigue
  • Compassion satisfaction
  • ProQOL
  • Vicarious trauma