Anxiety About Wildfires: Hard Realities About Living in the West

By Susan M. Doak, LPC

I stepped outside today and noticed the now familiar smoke haze of the mid-summer fire season. Until last year, I never considered my community to be at particularly high risk to wildfire. A week before school was scheduled to start last fall, however, our area sustained an unusual windstorm event, significantly drying our land into a tinder box ready to light up at the smallest spark from someone’s chain saw, a lit cigarette, or a dragging chain behind a pickup truck. I heard about the fires that were still two counties over and our sky filled with a sickening orange haze as the fire’s severity increased. Then a dark purple cloud like nothing we had ever seen approached from the southeast, announcing what felt like impending doom.

That fateful evening, I rounded the corner coming home from work and saw a plume of smoke coming from the low mountain that borders our city limits. I stayed up all night watching the fire and waiting for alerts on my phone about a possible evacuation. I worried for my friends on the mountain and knew that if I could watch it from my driveway, I should worry about my own family as well. The next day I continued to operate in a state of hyper-vigilance as we woke up to an orange sky and toxic air that seemed to sit on us with a suffocating weight. Smoke filled our homes, local grocery stores, and places of employment. Our “go bags” were packed with sleeping gear, food, and water. We waited and watched. After several days of holding an unruly fire line, the courageous firefighters seemed to have the fire contained and we were no longer in imminent danger. I never had to evacuate, but many were forced to flee and several lost their lives and homes across our state. Locally, animals were lost, properties were damaged, and the school year was delayed for one more week (beyond the other chaos Covid brought all of us). At last, the air quality seemed to improve and finally we could go outside again. It rained, and all seemed to be well again.

I consider myself a naturally anxious person, which comes with its drawbacks, no doubt, but it also makes me a fantastic problem solver. I’m not typically bothered when people talk about worst-case scenarios because my mind is a virtual minefield of these scenarios already. I have learned to recognize my anxious feelings and have a plan for how to deal with fear.

Recognizing Feelings of Anxiety—and Label Them

I’ve found that I feel anxiety in my body: my heart beats faster, my muscles tighten, my stomach flips, my appetite disappears, and I can’t sleep. My mind begins to race toward imagining every possible way something can go wrong. Anxiety and fear might cause you to feel frozen, like fighting or running. This is the “fight, flight, or fear” response to stress. You may find that your mind races, your heart pounds, or that you are easily angered or irritated.

If you are finding that the arrival of smoke and new fires popping up are causing you anxiety, you are not alone. You may be recognizing now that you have never dealt with the trauma you experienced last year because we were so inundated by crisis after crisis. There was no time. Between the city riots and social justice campaigns, the global pandemic, the loss of school and childcare, the election, and widespread unemployment—among other challenges—it’s no wonder we skipped over processing it as soon as the danger seemed to pass. Trauma has a way of re-surfacing and can lead to a grinding anxiety that threatens to shut us down over and over. With practice, you can learn to recognize these feelings of anxiety and label them as “anxiety.” Fear and anxiety are normal responses to a stressful or harmful situation and can either produce panic or productive action. With some practice, we can choose.

Convert Your Anxiety into an Action Plan: Prepare and Let it Go

Once you’ve recognized and labeled your feelings as fear, make a plan for how to deal with the feared scenario if it should arise. I have found it is helpful to prepare for anxiety-inducing situations by covering these five dimensions of wellness: physical, mental, emotional, spiritual, social. You can use these dimensions as a guide for preparing for natural disasters, anticipated life changes, and even your next trip home for the holidays! When you’ve attended to preparing in these dimensions, you’ll know you’ve done your due diligence. Then you have removed fear’s power to control your daily life. Here is how I apply the five dimensions of wellness to reducing anxiety around wildfires:

PhysicalTake steps to provide for your physical safety and health: I purchased KN95 masks for my family, air filter/purifiers, and made sure to have water and food on hand for emergencies. We have an evacuation plan for moving to safety. Pay attention to the “basics” of healthy eating, sleeping, and hygiene.
MentalUse the power of your mind to problem solve and increase your sense of confidence and control rather than to induce panic. You can’t control everything, but you can control a few things. Avoid victim thinking and instead empower yourself to act if needed.
EmotionalPromote calm: Make a habit of bringing down your heart rate regularly through relaxation exercises such as deep breathing, meditation, and walking. Be kind to yourself. You can then use these tactics, if you’ve practiced more peaceful times, during a crisis.
SpiritualTap into your sense of altruism. How can you be a support to others? Get in touch with your religious community to pool resources and offer practical help and spiritual support.
SocialRemember that you are a part of a system of support. Talk to others about your feelings. Check in with neighbors and friends. Know your local safety plans and recommendations.

Once you have a plan and have prepared yourself, reassure yourself that you have done your due diligence and you can now start to let go of the anxiety. This is easier said than done. Most people talk to themselves in their own mind. We interpret our situation and discover our feelings about it. Notice the difference between saying to yourself:

“Oh my God, this fire thing is so scary! We could die! Why do these bad things always happen to me?”

and

“I am scared, but I prepared for this. I have a plan to deal with this situation if it comes, and we’re going to weather this storm.”

Do you see the difference? The first statement seems to say: “Panic! This is bad! You’ll never make it out of this one. You must have done something terrible to bring on yet another bad thing in your life. You should blame yourself. Yes, add shame to your panic!”

The second statement seems to say: “Yes, you’re afraid, and that’s okay. You planned for this and you’ll get through it. I know you will. You can’t control everything, life is unpredictable, but you are doing your best. Keep going.”

Yes. Keep going and live your life. Pay attention, but don’t let fear dictate your future. You’ve got this. Work together and look after your neighbor. Use the power of your mind to plan and prepare and then keep going.

Your turn: Are you experiencing anxiety about wildfire danger? Use the power of your mind to first, plan, second to prepare, and third, keep going. Don’t let fear and anxiety control your life.

Lower Photo: Newberg, Oregon Haze September 9, 2020
Upper Photo: Chehalem Mountain from Newberg, Oregon September 8, 2020 by Susan M. Doak

2 thoughts on “Anxiety About Wildfires: Hard Realities About Living in the West

  1. Photo labeled as September 9, 2021???? Perhaps your scenario was 2020??? I am currently (August 22, 2021) concerned about old friends who moved to the Chahalem Mtns last April 2020.

    1. Susan Melendez Doak, LPC August 23, 2021 — 9:58 am

      Thank you for pointing out this error! We have changed the photo caption to reflect 2020. Sept 2021 has not occurred yet, has it! We are hoping for a better September this year.

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