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Californians brace for emotional toll from wildfires

By: SUDHIN THANAWALA and TERRY CHEA , Associated Press
October 17, 2017 Updated: October 17, 2017 at 7:37 am
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From left, Rick Olcese, Ty Knapp and Ariana Olcese search for the Olcese family cats in the Larkfield neighborhood, Monday Oct. 16, 2017, near Santa Rosa, Calif. Calm winds gave an advantage to firefighters trying to tame the flames of deadly wildfires on Monday. (Kent Porter/The Press Democrat via AP)

SANTA ROSA, Calif. — A week after fleeing wildfires, tens of thousands of Californians are drifting back into their neighborhoods.

Some will face the prospect of destroyed homes. All will face the possibility of lasting emotional damage.

"It's never going to be the same," said Rob Brown, a supervisor in Mendocino County, where all 8,000 evacuees were cleared to go home Monday. "You're going to have to seek a new normal."

The fires, the deadliest cluster in California history, have killed at least 41 people and destroyed nearly 6,000 homes.

The thousands of calls coming from concerned residents in neighboring Sonoma County "have shifted from questions about evacuation to questions about coping," Sonoma County Supervisor Shirlee Zane said.

"Many people who call are sad and worried, the shock has worn off and the sadness, depression and loss is setting in."

As a former grief therapist, she advised people with a family member or loved one who has lost everything to understand they can't fix this but they can offer support.

"Provide a compassionate listening ear right now, and let them feel whatever they're feeling," Zane said.

And those who must rebuild from nothing are in for a changed life.

"You're in for decades," Brown said. "You'll see benefits within years, but you're literally in for decades of recovery."

Jennifer Kelly and her husband and three sons lost their home and everything in it to a fire in Middletown in Lake County two years ago.

Now, with the new home 95 percent rebuilt, there are distant sirens, helicopters and tankers, plumes of smoke, on-again, off-again evacuation orders.

"I'm pretty anxious," she said Sunday in their new home, 95 percent complete. "We wake up a few times a night, one time last week we saw red on the horizon which was a little intimidating."

The Kellys are ready to evacuate. Since they started from scratch two years ago, aside from their pets there's not much to put in their van.

They have talked about what they'll do if it happens again: "We're moving far away, to Wyoming," she said.

The return home was emotional even for those whose properties were spared.

"When we came up to check on it, we were amazed it was here," said Tom Beckman. "All the trivial things we have to work on — cleaning up, replacing the stuff in the fridge and freezer — that's nothing compared to my friends who lost their homes."

In the hard-hit city of Santa Rosa, two hospitals were forced to close during the fires, leaving just one open, St. Joseph Health.

Eighty-three hospital employees and 51 doctors had homes destroyed during the fires, though many continued to report to work.

"We expect the number to go up," said St. Joseph Health spokeswoman Vanessa DeGier. "We have a bunch of folks going back tonight after evacuation was lifted."

There was also good news to report.

Vicki White, chief nursing officer, said that a total of 36 babies were born at St. Joseph during the week since wildfires started, which represents about three times the normal delivery rate.

"All of those babies are doing very well," she said

Improving weather, the prospect of some light rain later in the week and tightening containment of the flames were tempered by the first death from the firefighting effort — a driver who was killed when his truck overturned on a winding mountain road.

The truck driver, who had been delivering water to the fire lines, crashed before dawn Monday in Napa County on a roadway that climbs from vineyards into the mountains. No other details were available about the accident, which was under investigation, said Mike Wilson, a fire spokesman.

In the historic main square of the wine and tourist town of Sonoma, a statue of the community's 19th-century founder was draped with signs thanking firefighters who have saved the town from disaster.

"The love in the air is thicker than the smoke," read a sign on the bench that displays the statue of Gen. Mariano Vallejo, which was wearing a face mask.

___

Associated Press writers Ellen Knickmeyer in Sonoma, Brian Skoloff in Napa, Andrew Dalton in Los Angeles, Martha Mendoza in Santa Cruz and Brian Melley, Janie Har and Jocelyn Gecker in San Francisco contributed to this report.

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