Few other natural disasters have the polarities of fire. It’s as comforting as it is disheartening, as mesmerizing as it is frightening, as thoroughly reparative as it is destructive.
Evergreen forests like those surrounding the Wood River Valley are naturally adapted to fires. The pine cones have a waxy coat that opens in response to the heat of the blaze, scattering seeds over the ash-nourished soil.
Traumatic events are as elemental to our nervous systems and their abilities to protect us as the blaze is to a pinecone. To find a resilient zone, we must have a charge, the spark that ignites our primal instincts of flight or fight.
About a dozen people gathered Wednesday night at Ketchum City Hall to hear trauma specialist Melissa Boley validate their emotional shifts during and since the Beaver Creek Fire, very nearly out north of Ketchum, soon to be a historical footnote as one of the largest on record to threaten south-central Idaho.
“The adrenalin is gone, and the feelings of stress and anxiety are there,” said one man. “Everything is OK, but I’m not.”
Others, some of whom were evacuated from Hailey, allowed to go home and then awakened from uneasy slumber in the early morning hours when Croy Canyon became dangerous, shared feelings of sadness, short tempers and sleeplessness. But so did those who merely witnessed the fire.
Boley explained that response to fire is especially heightened by its bewildering nature.
“You won’t find people who say, ‘Earthquakes are good, tsunamis are good,’ but fire is good and bad,” she said. “The difference is the container. If a fire is not contained, it is extreme. When it is contained, it brings comfort.”
Natural disasters are on the increase, so it is crucial to learn to get our nerves in a zone of resilience, able to respond appropriately, but likewise able to adjust and move on, she said.
“Not in a Pollyanna way,” she said. “The resilient zone creates the capacity for flexibility and adaptability in mind, body and spirit.”
Our nervous systems are as individual as the cars we drive and it is important to understand your system with compassion, Boley said.
“When you get bumped out of the resilient zone, you get stuck on high, the flight or fight, or you get stuck on low, where you are a zombie, no response,” Boley said. “The key is to let the pressure out slowly,” like easing the top off a bottle to release the gas from a shook-up bubbly drink.
Foremost to remember is that anxiety in these circumstances is normal; it gives you the urgency to react. But when the immediate threat is past, things may trigger a reaction in incongruous circumstances.
One woman said the night she returned from evacuation her neighbor celebrated with a bonfire, the snap, crackle and pop of which wound her up unmercifully. In response, she took control. She called the police.
Boley said that was a perfect example of an appropriate action.
“Trauma is held in the body,” she said. The woman had skipped flight mode, knowing intuitively that she didn’t need to leave to be safe, but she needed to act to feel safe. Her fight mode was engaged.
“Our five senses are key to serving our autonomic system,” she said.
The electronic age has confused those impulses and put us far from our natural responses. An antelope being chased by a lion, who realizes he won’t outrun it, feigns a trip and then plays dead.
“It slows down the motion to evaluate what to do,” she said. “When we give up, we freeze.”
The trick is recognizing this state and using it to regroup.
Many people tearfully watched recreation areas ravaged. For some, it seemed as if they were seeing their therapist drop them as patients. Losing such a vital resource makes finding other outlets imperative, Boley said.
“There will be peaks, but you have to try and not get too popped out.”
Taking an inventory of the elements that made you feel good or who you were before the trauma is important as is locating new reserves before the next trauma inevitably occurs.
The week before the fire, many residents had experienced the trauma of the death of beloved doctor Bonni Curran, killed on her bicycle on Ketchum’s Main Street.
Carolyn Nystrom, from the Wood River Hospice and Palliative Care, is in the business of helping people through grief, but after Curran’s death, and when a UPS van crashed into her office building, and then the fire, even she was overloaded.
What spared her from falling apart were some simple post-Castle Rock preparations she had done around the office, she said.
“We had a list of what to take in an emergency and we could just open the cabinet and follow the list,” she said.
“People lose it in disasters when they aren't prepared,” Boley said. Being resilient is preparation for the inevitable.
“Take care of yourself in advance,” Nystrom agreed. “Build and prepare to be resilient so you aren’t trying to do it in the moment.”
Be prepared to see things differently, too, Boley said.
“If someone is raped in an alley, that alley represents something different. What used to be a shortcut to a friend’s house is no longer that, it’s attached to a trauma. The alley didn’t change, but the experience changed,” she said.
In the case of fire, a summer pastime heralding s’more season is now a force to be overcome.
“It will change, but be ready to embrace all the good change,” she said, recalling the abundance of hollyhocks that sprung up after Castle Rock.
There are numerous organizations in the valley to help people through the transition from what was to what is. Among them are St. Luke’s Center for Community Health, the Crisis Hotline, NAMI Wood River, The Advocates, Wood River Hospice and Palliative Care.