When Dr. Geneviève Belleville hears about what people in British Columbia have experienced during the wildfire season, she says it is very similar to what was witnessed in Fort McMurray after last year’s wildfire there.
“Everybody has been evacuated, or has been touched by the problem,” says Belleville, a professor of psychology at Laval University in Quebec City. “Everybody knows someone who experienced serious loss. There can be some ‘survivor’ guilt about letting yourself feel whatever you have been experiencing, because you are comparing yourself to somebody who has had it worse than you.
“This is a common reaction, I think, when an entire community has been subjected to a disaster or catastrophe.”
The worst loss of homes happened in Boston Flats near Cache Creek, where the Elephant Hill wildfire destroyed all but one of 60 units in a mobile home park last month.
Belleville says there are two kinds of stressors for evacuees.
“The experience of fear during the evacuation is really important. If you feel you are going to lose everything, or that you are going to lose somebody you are really close to, this can make a big impression on your brain, and cause some reminiscences afterward that are going to be difficult to deal with.”
The other kind of stress factor is the day-to-day adaption to the disaster.
“Maybe they didn’t lose their home, but maybe they have cleaning to do, or they have some replacements to make. They have to deal with the insurance companies, or maybe some of them changed their work schedules or lost their jobs,” Belleville says.
Those who lost their homes will be living with extensive trauma, she adds.
“You not only lose the things you need to function. You lose memories, and things that you are emotionally attached to. That’s a lot to take in, and obviously a very impactful event.”
She says it’s important for these people to get both tangible support, such as a place to stay while their home is being rebuilt, and emotional support, such as having others to talk to.
And she cautions about others being too optimistic.
“With good intentions, we might want to say to somebody, ‘Everything is not so bad, everything is going to be alright, you’re alive, that’s what counts.’ But sometimes these good intentions are a bit dismissive of what the person is trying to express, whether it’s sadness or frustration.”
She says there are other things those affected by the fires can do to de-stress, such as exercises to reduce anxiety and remembering to have fun with friends and family.
“Some people go through what we call post-traumatic growth. The painful experience has opened their eyes on what their true value is, and what they want to focus their life on,” she says.
“Of course, these events are terrible, and we’re not saying they’re good things to experience, but there is hope that most people, with time and with care, are going to get better. Most of them are going to be resilient, and some of them may even find that this event maybe helped them change their life for the better.”