Cal Fire shows Carr Fire from different views
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It took over a month, but she was finally unpacking.
Mia Miller still wasn’t totally comfortable with it, but figured it was time to put her things back where they were before the Carr Fire forced her to leave her Shasta Lake home for six days.
Then came the Ranchera Fire earlier this week. And instead of the panic Miller felt when she had to leave her home July 26, she didn’t really feel anything.
“I’m just done with this, you know? There’s only so much you can emotionally invest in it before you just either go psycho or shut down,” said Miller, 42.
Besides the Carr and Ranchera fires this summer, the threatening Hirz and Delta fires have spurred evacuations — some in the same neighborhoods first emptied by Carr. This summer’s horrific fire season has sent many fleeing for their lives more than once, leaving their homes behind and only the hope that they’d still be standing when they returned.
“Even if they were not in a lick of range of a cinder, it wouldn’t surprise me if this whole county does not end up traumatized by this,” Miller said.
One man has been evacuated five times since 2005. A family ended up evacuated again within an hour of finding refuge from the Carr Fire.
“You figure, ‘OK, we’re out of danger,’” said Bob Nelson, who evacuated twice in barely a month. “Then another one pops up in our neighborhood.”
‘Weird little things sort of trigger your emotions’: Five evacuations in 15 years
Every few years, a different fire forces Nelson out of his Ranchera Pines home.
This year, it’s been two: The Carr and Ranchera fires.
“You’re supposed to think, ‘Well, it can’t burn anymore now,’” said Nelson, owner of Central Valley Feed in Shasta Lake.
He and his wife have evacuated five times since 2005 — four of which were mandatory. And because she’s on oxygen, the Nelsons have to be especially cautious about leaving.
They’ve gotten so good at it, they keep beating the fire department to the punch: In both fires this summer, Nelson said he and his wife were getting ready to leave when they got the call ordering them out.
Still, having to leave twice in one summer is taking a psychological toll — something he’s not used to.
That’s a common response to a major disaster like a fire, experts say.
“Something like this can absolutely be a trigger,” Susan Power, president of the National Alliance on Mental Illness — Shasta County, has said. “This could set off a depression in someone who hadn’t experienced that before.”
For Nelson, even seeing signs around town thanking firefighters can be stressful — a reminder of what he and his wife have been through.
“The fire is just kind of getting to me after a while,” he said. “For the first time in my life, I’ve been experiencing some PTSD stuff, because weird little things sort of trigger your emotions. You go, ‘Wow, I didn’t know all that emotion was sitting under the surface.”
‘I’m not running from this’: Waiting for her chance to fall apart
Evacuating from the Carr Fire was intense, Miller said.
Her car broke down not once, but twice. The second time was right after she and her husband had loaded an elderly woman and her dog inside because the woman was having car troubles of her own.
Miller’s friend, a mechanic, came to help.
“When he came rolling through the smoke, it was like a white knight in a rusty Chevrolet,” she said.
After that, it was six days at her mom’s house in Anderson. But once Miller got home, she didn’t feel safe unpacking.
And when she finally started to let her guard down earlier this week, it was the night of the next fire that would force her out of her house.
By the time a firefighter knocked on her door the second time, Miller was fed up with feeling terrified. She just shut down instead.
“He didn’t even have to say anything,” she said. “I just looked at him and I said, ‘Is it time?’”
In some ways, that worked. Miller kept a cool head as she watered things down outside before leaving.
“My husband and daughter were panicking, and I’m just sitting there like, ‘OK, I’m not running from this,’” Miller said.
That’s a common coping strategy for people facing imminent trauma, Barbara Davis, an associate clinical social worker at Redding’s Creekside Counseling, has said.
“They’re still in shock, and so the emotional piece connected to the fire may not happen for many of them for a few more months,” Davis said.
But the numbness has a dark side, too. After all, the fear of fire is still in the back of Miller’s head.
“If someone even lights so much as an effing barbecue in this neighborhood tonight, I’m going to lose my s***,” she said Thursday.
And forcing the fear back takes a lot of energy — the kind Miller used to focus into painting and other hobbies.
“I just haven’t had the motivation or even the emotional energy to sit down and paint. And I’m not the only one,” she said. “I just haven’t had the energy to do anything what I normally enjoy doing because I’m so fixated on, ‘Oh my God, is there going to be a fire that pops up?’”
On some level, Miller knows she’s not really OK just because she’s figured out way to get by emotionally. But she won’t let herself grieve until there’s time to.
“When a crisis is happening, I lock into a mode of ‘solve the problem,’” she said. “And then after the problem is over, that’s when I have my breakdown — 10 minutes exactly, that’s when I have my, ‘Oh my God, what’s going on?’”
‘Homeless until 4:30’: Evacuating twice in one night — with kids
Jill Sharp and her family had found their refuge.
All the hotels were booked, but a church friend with a vacation home opened it up for them the night the Carr Fire destroyed Sharp’s own house.
But within an hour, the fire caught up with them. And they were back on the road.
“We were kind of homeless until 4:30 (a.m.),” when they got in touch with an extended family member in the area, 54-year-old Sharp said.
CALIFORNIA WILDFIRES: Here’s a list of serious fires after the Carr Fire
Sharp has 11 children. Some of them are grown — including one whose house also burned that night. But others are still children, and some are former foster kids she and her husband have adopted.
With their diverse backgrounds, Sharp noticed how diverse their responses to the trauma were, too.
Her 13-year-old thought it was fun to dig through the rubble of their house, reminding Sharp that she’s already lived in 15 homes throughout her young life.
Her 11-year-old wanted to help, too. But it was just too much.
“He could only handle it for maybe 15 minutes and he said, ‘Mom, I need to go,’” she said.
It’s not just the young ones struggling, either.
Sharp’s adult daughter has been evacuated more than once. Now she keeps her pictures packed in her car.
“She’s just so done with this, she could scream,” Sharp said. “It’s really hard to say that this darkness hasn’t affected my children.”
Sharp is having a tough time, too. She worries daily about her husband, an electrician who’s been working at Shasta Dam since the Carr Fire.
He left work to help the rest of the family evacuate that night. But he’s been working since, making her more worried than usual.
“He was our hero that night, and our angel,” she said. “It scares me with my husband working at the Shasta Dam so close to it, too.”
When those fears pile up, Sharp drives to the charred plot of land that used to be her home and prays.
“Every time when my chin’s hanging low, I’m just down there praying,” she said. “That’s how I’m dealing with it.”
While there, Sharp noticed her white cement angel outside had somehow survived the fire, which burned so hot in some places that it melted metal. She sees the angel as a symbol of everyone who’s been praying for the family.
That’s why she moved it to the Shasta Lake home of her daughter who’s also been evacuated more than once.
“It was a little diminished, but giving hope to us that we could try and move on from this,” she said. “We put it there to give her hope.”
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