Author(s): Michele Steinberg. Published on May 4, 2020.

Emotional Rescue

Devastating wildfires are contributing to a mental health crisis in the United States. Why is there so little research about the problem? 

When it comes to an accounting of human suffering and the impacts of wildfire disasters on public health, there is scant research to be found. This is in contrast to other areas of wildfire study where research is plentiful. Spurred by the occurrence of fires that destroy hundreds or thousands of homes and kill firefighters and residents, researchers and reporters delve into topics as far-ranging as detection, causes, fire-spread dynamics, evacuation routes, building materials, and insurance costs, gathering and analyzing statistics on property loss, response times, suppression costs, and more.

It’s time to pay more attention to the impact on public health, especially our psychological health. A recent investigative study in the California Health Report, prepared by the Center for Public Integrity and Columbia Journalism Investigations, declared that disasters including wildfire are driving a mental-health crisis in the country. A recent article in Outside highlighted attempts by researchers to quantify the toll on wildfire survivors. Both articles reinforce the idea that much more work needs to be done to understand the impact and timescale of disaster-induced trauma and emotional recovery, and both demonstrate our society’s inability to adequately address post-wildfire public-health needs. Just as important as understanding what is happening to wildfire survivors is developing effective ways to help them manage the post-traumatic effects of their experiences.

What little research does exist suggests that trauma stays with wildfire survivors for years. I observed that phenomenon up close nearly a decade ago, when NFPA staff met with middle-school students and their parents in Colorado and Texas to talk about their experiences with wildfire. I recall a woman who talked to me in the community room of a fire station outside Austin, Texas. Less than a year earlier, the Bastrop County Complex Fire had burned for more than three weeks, destroying 1,700 homes, killing four people, and reducing the Bastrop State Forest to a smoldering ruin. “My daughter is afraid,” the woman told me. “Our route to her kindergarten is through the state forest. She cries and ducks down to the floor of the car when we pass through. She doesn’t want to look at the dead trees and the ash.”

It wasn’t the first time I’d heard an emotional story from a wildfire survivor, but what struck me was that this family had not suffered direct losses in the fire—even so, the residual trauma of the event was palpable and real. The students we spoke to that summer had all experienced wildfire in their communities within the previous two years, fires that had occurred during the school year. In almost every case, the impacts of those fires were not addressed in their classrooms; one district went so far as to forbid discussion of the fires in its schools, believing it would re-traumatize students who had lost homes or loved ones. Yet the people who were ostensibly unharmed expressed feelings of guilt, grief, fear, and anger about what had happened in their community and to their neighbors.

Our work in Colorado and Texas produced two reports on youth and wildfires, and there is much more work to be done. We wouldn’t dream of dismissing wildfire’s impacts on home destruction, and we would be remiss if we didn’t track fire suppression costs. Yet our society ignores the very real and damaging impacts of wildfires on the physical and mental health of tens of thousands of Americans. Supported by robust research, we must strive for a much better and broader understanding of public-health impacts and needs. As we react to the rising costs of wildfire disasters with more studies and more strategies, we need to remember that not everything that counts can be counted.

Michele Steinberg is director of the wildfire division at NFPA. Illustration: Michael Hoeweler