Fire Survivors Help Each Other—and Find Some Healing in the Process

For wildfire survivors, helping and connecting with others is crucial to their ongoing recovery.

Firefighters and volunteers serve Thanksgiving dinner to fire survivors in Chico, California.

Photo from World Central Kitchen

Amanda Woodley was at an appointment in Redding, California, when she first got word of the Carr Fire that sparked just west of the city last July. That afternoon, she headed home to Palo Cedro, a community of 1,200 people. Temperatures soared above 110 degrees and emergency notifications set off a string of alerts on her cell phone.

The fires spread quickly, crossing the Sacramento River and covering 45 square miles in a matter of days. Amanda called her grandfather Eddy Bledsoe, who lived in a mobile home with his wife, Melody, and their two young great-grandchildren in Redding. He was distraught: After an errand to town, he returned to emergency workers blocking the entrance to his neighborhood. He and two dozen other family members retreated to Amanda’s home in Palo Cedro, where they spent three days calling and visiting shelters in search of Melody and the children.

After those three days of searching, the Shasta County sheriff contacted her grandfather and delivered the devastating news: Melody, 75, and their great-grandchildren, James, 5, and Emily, 4, had died in the fire.

The fires changed Woodley’s life in ways she wasn’t sure she’d recover from, and she’s still processing significant personal grief. Yet, several months after the loss, she found some healing when she started volunteering to help others in Northern California’s fire survivor community. Woodley is one of a number of fire survivors who have found emotional support by offering—and receiving—help from other survivors.

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Initially, facing the loss of her family members during the Carr Fire rendered Woodley unable to focus or function, and simple tasks like getting a cup of coffee could be a grueling process. Woodley says that the outpouring of community support helped her and her family get through those first weeks. Today, she says that helping and connecting with others has been crucial to her ongoing recovery.

“[When] the Camp Fire broke out, I spent three days on the couch. I couldn’t get up. I was just crying and crying. And then on day three I woke up with a purpose, and that’s just what I’ve been doing, just trying to help,” she says.

Just four months after her own ordeal, Woodley was one of 150 people who helped serve Thanksgiving dinner to Camp Fire survivors near Chico. She then coordinated gifts through an adopt-a-senior program for 18 elders who lost their homes. Woodley is also considering starting a foundation in her grandmother’s name to help future survivors.

“It’s the only way I can function,” she says. “It keeps me busy and occupied. It keeps my mind on positive things.”

The physical and psychological benefits of helping others continue to be studied. Research recently published by Psychosomatic Medicine: Journal of Behavioral Medicine suggests that helping others contributes to brain health and emotional well-being. The study also revealed that providing targeted support to specific people activates the region of the brain associated with parental care, and is more beneficial to emotional well-being than donating money to an organization.

A similar study published in the International Journal of Behavioral Medicine in 2005 reported that “a strong correlation exists between the well-being, happiness, health, and longevity of people who are emotionally and behaviorally compassionate.” The study found a caveat, however: Offering support is only beneficial if the helper is not overwhelmed by the tasks.

Signs serve as reminders of California’s community resilience. This one hung on a fence after the deadly Camp Fire in Paradise. Photo from the County of Butte.

Helping others with similar experiences is not a cure-all for trauma. According to the 2005 study, people who are physically or mentally overwhelmed or feel taxed by the needs of others can experience significant strain that can contribute to negative health consequences.

“What we do know very clearly: Previous trauma affects a person’s capacity for resilience,” says marriage and family therapist Linda Graham, author of Resilience: Powerful Practices for Bouncing Back from Disappointment, Difficulty, and Even Disaster. “If there’s been previous trauma, it affects the capacity to deal with a catastrophe, to bounce back from a catastrophe. … But even if people have had traumas, if they’ve had the strength of resilience to navigate that, then they’re less likely to go into trauma the next time something difficult happens.”

According to the American Psychological Association, resilience is “adapting well in the face of adversity, trauma, tragedy, threats, or significant sources of stress” and bouncing back from challenging experiences. Being resilient does not mean that a person won’t experience negative emotions in the face of stress, however—it means managing those feelings in order to carry on with life in a healthy way.

Pennisue Hignell is the director of the Northern California Trauma Recovery Network, a group of 85 therapists offering pro bono sessions to address early trauma from Northern California fires like the November 2018 Camp Fire in Paradise. She says that in addition to the eye movement desensitization and reprocessing treatments that she and others offer, providing social support can indeed benefit the brains of survivors and support them in the healing process.

Hignell says social support helps develop “the adaptive brain,” a region of the brain which psychologists attribute with resilience and combatting emotional distress.

Chef José Andrés, founder of World Central Kitchen, serving a Thanksgiving meal to a Paradise officer. Photo from World Central Kitchen.

“The adaptive part of the brain is developed through spirituality, friendships, relationships, someone who loves you, meditation, yoga,” she says. “Giving service to others develops things that put endorphins in the brain. So that person feels better, I would imagine, in serving [others].”

Hignell also points out that simply connecting with community can have a positive impact on survivors.

“I think that it would help them a lot because I think the hardest things for these survivors is they lost their community,” she says. “That’s far more significant than losing a house.”

Like Woodley, Angie Wynacht had an experience of helping others that has also helped her recovery. Wynacht is a single mother who lived in a rental with her two sons, ages 10 and 14, when the October 2017 Mendocino Complex fire ignited near her Redwood Valley community about 10 miles north of Ukiah, California.

Wynacht listened as the winds howled and watched the fires transform the sky from pink to orange outside her window. By 2:30 a.m., cars filled the roads. She and her sons threw what they could gather into laundry baskets and fled to a hotel in Ukiah.

“At about 5:30 that morning a friend sent me a picture from Facebook, and it was my street sign with flames on the bottom,” Wynacht says.

She clicked on to the website of a community news page and saw a photograph of her home of just two months engulfed in flames.

Americorps volunteers help sort donations for fire survivors in Redwood Valley, during the Mendocino Complex fires of 2017. Photo by Danilla Sands.

After the traumatic experience, Wynacht settled into a new home in another fire-prone region of California that has experienced numerous fires over the last several years. Climate change is contributing to prolonged and extreme fire seasons throughout California. Higher average temperatures and drought create a higher risk of catastrophe. Of the 20 largest wildfires in California’s history, 15 have occurred in the last two decades.

Shortly after the fires, Wynacht began volunteering to help other survivors—something she continued to do while she settled into her new home. Through her experience supporting others who went through the fires, Wynacht says, she’s come to recognize her own competence and strength.

“I know these families have the strength to get back on their feet.”

Within days of losing her home in Redwood Valley, Wynacht went to a volunteer center to organize donations and clean the space. When the Camp Fire started nearly a year later, she helped again, that time “adopting” a single mother and her adult son with disabilities by offering emotional support and purchasing everything on their holiday wish list.

“When I see other people going through this, I am very sympathetic,” Wynacht says. “And since I was in their shoes, I want to help them in ways that helped me and I want to be an example to them, saying, ‘You guys can make it, too. You feel like you’re going to die now. You feel like, ‘Why keep going and there’s no hope.’ But believe me, if I can get through it, so can you.”

Survivors like Woodley and Wynacht agree they’ve found healing in helping others who have been through similar experiences.

Yet benefits aren’t limited to individual healing. Efforts like these can also help build community resilience, which is crucial as survivors work to rebuild their lives.

Danilla Sands lost her home in a single residential fire when she was 11 and later watched as family members and loved ones’ homes perished in more recent fires around Northern California. She also lost a close friend in the 2017 Redwood Valley fire.

Since the 2015 Valley Fires in Lake County, she has been a volunteer coordinator for fire relief services, including managing a networking page on Facebook and establishing two donation sites, which she voluntarily coordinates year-round. Sands says that of the countless volunteers she interacts with, fire survivors are the first to step forward to help. She initially felt conflicted about accepting help from people who had lost so much, but has come to see their efforts as part of their recovery process.

“The most beautiful thing I have witnessed is a volunteer or previous fire survivor hugging a recent fire survivor and reassuring them things will be OK,” she says. “I know these families have the strength to get back on their feet. Sometimes they just need someone to lift them up until they’re ready.”

Woodley’s grandfather is now in the process of moving into a mobile home among the Douglas Fir of a hillside community east of Redding. Around the one-year anniversary of the Mendocino Complex fires that took Wynacht’s home, she signed papers on a new home that she purchased with support from a grant program for fire survivors through North Coast Opportunities. And because help is needed long after the flames are extinguished, Sands continues her volunteer efforts.

This photo snapped by Daniele Ferlito in the ruins of his Sonoma County home in 2017 has become a bittersweet symbol of support in the wake of California's numerous destructive fires. Photo by Daniele Ferlito.

“I hate asking for help or accepting help when it’s offered, but I grew up in church,” Wynacht says. “And one of the things that we were always taught is if someone offers to bless you, you need to accept it, because if you don’t accept it, you’re robbing them of the chance to bless you.”

“That’s my family’s heart, anyways, like Grandma and Grandpa. We’re all just givers and lovers and helpers, and it’s just in our blood. It’s helping my grieving process, and it’s helping me to positively carry their legacy and remember them,” Woodley adds. “I still cry a lot, but you got to cry if you want to heal.”