What It’s Like to Evacuate Twice in One Summer Due to California Wildfires

It took over a month, but she was finally unpacking.

Mia Miller still wasn’t totally comfortable with it, but figured it was time to put her things back where they were before the Carr Fire forced her to leave her Shasta Lake home for six days.

Then came the Ranchera Fire earlier this week. And instead of the panic Miller felt when she had to leave her home July 26, she didn’t really feel anything.

“I’m just done with this, you know? There’s only so much you can emotionally invest in it before you just either go psycho or shut down,” said Miller, 42.

Besides the Carr and Ranchera fires this summer, the threatening Hirz and Delta fires have spurred evacuations — some in the same neighborhoods first emptied by Carr. This summer’s horrific fire season has sent many fleeing for their lives more than once, leaving their homes behind and only the hope that they’d still be standing when they returned.

“Even if they were not in a lick of range of a cinder, it wouldn’t surprise me if this whole county does not end up traumatized by this,” Miller said.

One man has been evacuated five times since 2005. A family ended up evacuated again within an hour of finding refuge from the Carr Fire.

“You figure, ‘OK, we’re out of danger,'” said Bob Nelson, who evacuated twice in barely a month. “Then another one pops up in our neighborhood.”

‘Weird little things sort of trigger your emotions’: Five evacuations in 15 years

Every few years, a different fire forces Nelson out of his Ranchera Pines home.

This year, it’s been two: The Carr and Ranchera fires.

“You’re supposed to think, ‘Well, it can’t burn anymore now,'” said Nelson, owner of Central Valley Feed in Shasta Lake.

He and his wife have evacuated five times since 2005 — four of which were mandatory. And because she’s on oxygen, the Nelsons have to be especially cautious about leaving.

They’ve gotten so good at it, they keep beating the fire department to the punch: In both fires this summer, Nelson said he and his wife were getting ready to leave when they got the call ordering them out.

Still, having to leave twice in one summer is taking a psychological toll — something he’s not used to.

That’s a common response to a major disaster like a fire, experts say.

“Something like this can absolutely be a trigger,” Susan Power, president of the National Alliance on Mental Illness — Shasta County, has said. “This could set off a depression in someone who hadn’t experienced that before.”

For Nelson, even seeing signs around town thanking firefighters can be stressful — a reminder of what he and his wife have been through.

“The fire is just kind of getting to me after a while,” he said. “For the first time in my life, I’ve been experiencing some PTSD stuff, because weird little things sort of trigger your emotions. You go, ‘Wow, I didn’t know all that emotion was sitting under the surface.”

‘I’m not running from this’: Waiting for her chance to fall apart

Evacuating from the Carr Fire was intense, Miller said.

Her car broke down not once, but twice. The second time was right after she and her husband had loaded an elderly woman and her dog inside because the woman was having car troubles of her own.

Miller’s friend, a mechanic, came to help.

“When he came rolling through the smoke, it was like a white knight in a rusty Chevrolet,” she said.

After that, it was six days at her mom’s house in Anderson. But once Miller got home, she didn’t feel safe unpacking.

And when she finally started to let her guard down earlier this week, it was the night of the next fire that would force her out of her house.

By the time a firefighter knocked on her door the second time, Miller was fed up with feeling terrified. She just shut down instead.

“He didn’t even have to say anything,” she said. “I just looked at him and I said, ‘Is it time?'”

In some ways, that worked. Miller kept a cool head as she watered things down outside before leaving.

ARSON ACTIVITY: California wildfires: Officials say large fires can ‘spur’ arson activity

“My husband and daughter were panicking, and I’m just sitting there like, ‘OK, I’m not running from this,'” Miller said.

That’s a common coping strategy for people facing imminent trauma, Barbara Davis, an associate clinical social worker at Redding’s Creekside Counseling, has said.

“They’re still in shock, and so the emotional piece connected to the fire may not happen for many of them for a few more months,” Davis said.

But the numbness has a dark side, too. After all, the fear of fire is still in the back of Miller’s head.

“If someone even lights so much as an effing barbecue in this neighborhood tonight, I’m going to lose my s***,” she said Thursday.

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Source: USA Today