In Northern California, we have had three years in a row of major fires during October not only causing massive destruction but impacting large areas surrounding the actual fires by unhealthy air quality as smoke blanketed communities. This current fire season was recently met by the electric company (PG&E) with pre-emptive shut offs during hot, dry and very windy conditions to try to minimize further impact. This meant many communities in the Bay Area had no power for day after day while they nervously watched a massive fire raging under the most dangerous of weather conditions.
The collective angst is palpable during this type of event. If you tend towards anxiety, a situation like this can be particularly activating. I was out of the country as the fire grew with my husband and son home in Mill Valley. Though I was away on a mini vacation, I had one eye on California and the unfolding situation the entire time. I was nervous and didn’t like being away from my family when things appeared to be unraveling in such a way.
When I landed in Oakland this past Sunday night, we glided down through a haze of golden brown, glistening in the sunlight over the Pacific ocean, an odd deja-vu I’d experienced in years past when smoke from raging fires nearby had been in the air. It just does doesn’t look right. My husband had bought a generator on Amazon Saturday which miraculously arrived Sunday and he had been feverishly running around to buy the needed accessories like extension cords, gas, etc to be able to at least run our fridge and have some lights in the home during what looked to be an extended blackout. I soon realized that many people in our community were not so fortunate and were in the dark, losing the contents of their fridges and many without internet.
As this all unfolded, things got surreal at one point as many gas stations in San Francisco ran out of gas (they had power when no counties anywhere near them did and people were flooding in from all sides to fill up), school was closed for three days for us, kids were restless and we paid close attention to the firefighters progress. Unhealthy air touched down (though I have to say not nearly the air quality issues we’ve had before, thank you Mother Nature for pushing much of the toxic air out to the ocean).
After a few days, power was restored in small pieces of communities, oddly, and I was able to see the therapy clients of mine who chose to come. Of course the first topic on hand was how they were were faring with no power and fires nearby, the anxiety of not being able to communicate at times or get emergency notifications if they came (many cell towers went down) and generally help them process what was going on.
At the end of the day, we got through it, power came back, the fire threat diminished for us and air quality was pretty good…kids went back to school on Halloween and were able to trick-or-treat with clean air that night. We were very lucky as some communities had far more impact.
I noticed a few things during this period.
When issues of community safety and well being are at stake and you have no control of what’s going to happen next, there is a stripping down to the basics of need (food, water, shelter, etc). But there is also a need to feel emotionally safe internally and in your closest relationships when things are spinning around you.
Here are some things to consider for yourself and in your relationships (intimate, friends, neighbors) if things every get crazy for your community, in whatever form that might take.
- Validate your partner’s emotions. All sorts of feelings can come up when things get out of control and scary. Though some are more “cool, calm and collected” it doesn’t mean that others worry and stress is not valid. If you are in a relationship, do not minimize or mock each other’s responses but rather hear each other and respond with compassion.
- Ratchet up your self-care. If you are prone to anxiety and feeling out of control, it’s even more important to pull out your self regulation and coping tools. Perhaps for you it’s a few minutes of meditation or simply closing your eyes for a deep, full breath. If reading makes you feel calm, get your book out. Journal to process your feelings or pull out a sketch pad to draw. Some people just need to talk it out.
- Do your best to protect and care for your partner (and family). My husband’s hard work enabled us to have light when the evenings went black and be able to salvage our food which we were able to warm up on our gas stove. I was so grateful to come home to a community in chaos with this. Some of my therapy clients spoke of their added distress in feeling like their partners where not collaborating with them to make their homes more secure and were scrambling on their own to do so. This exacerbated their anxiety.
- Reach out a helping hand. There were so many examples of people helping each other, including businesses. Our small local market offered hot coffee to many bleary-eyed and powerless people as well as tried hard to keep shelves stocked. Our next door neighbor was so pleased to share in some of our generator power and another set of friends without access to power came to eat dinner with us with light and take showers. The sense of “we’re in this together” was calming.
- Stay in close contact with loved ones. I found myself doing the rounds checking in with family in the area, often daily. It’s important to keep lines to each other. In some cases with people not getting texts, emails or phone calls this was a challenge, even more unsettling.
- Pull in tight. My birthday happened to fall on this past Monday and I barely registered this as it was most meaningful to simply be close to my immediate family as we sat in low light having a meal together. If you are single and not close to family, connect with other friends or a family you know! I did get a lovely fruit tart with a candle in it, thanks to backup generator power at our local market. A bonus!
Many people don’t know what it’s like to have a community crisis due to severe weather events, earthquakes or even war. It’s a unique experience and in the big picture, we were just fine compared to those who were forced to evacuate, lost homes and/or their lives! Yet there is a unique collective emotional experience that happens in crisis, especially when things we take for granted, like power, are suddenly gone. Though this was not fun to say the least, it tested us in a really important way and hopefully there are lessons we can take heed, if calamity strikes again.
Take care of yourselves and each other. And remember that people are generally good and will be there if things get hard.