Though the ominous orange glow of flames devouring thousands of homes and the unrelenting rain of embers from October’s wildfires have long faded from view in Sonoma County, the trauma felt by local residents is still in clear focus, officials say.
As efforts to rebuild the county’s physical infrastructure are underway, mental health providers, including Petaluma People Services Center, will be hitting the streets for a second wave of crisis-related counseling and outreach. The work, which will begin this month, is fueled by $3.4 million Federal Emergency Management Agency grant, said Wendy Wheelwright, the project manager for California Helping Outreach Possibilities and Empowerment (HOPE), the formal name for the crisis counseling program.
The Crisis Counseling Assistance and Training Program bolsters existing resources to facilitate community-based outreach and psychoeducational services to disaster survivors. The first $999,000 of the grant, which the State of California Department of Health Services applied for and the Sonoma County Board of Supervisors allocated, was used for a so-called initial services program, providing crisis counseling at shelters, site and school re-entry points, town halls and the local area assistance center, Wheelwright said.
‘Survivors are busy people’
The $3.3 million will cover nine months of “regular service program” crisis counseling that is tentatively scheduled to began the week of April 23, Wheelright said. Staff from Petaluma People Services Center, the Council on Aging, Goodwill Redwood Empire and West County Community Services will meet those impacted by the fires where they are, including through schools, churches, community groups, neighborhood associations and social media, to provide a helping hand and referrals to local services, she said.
“Survivors are busy people,” Wheelwright wrote in an email. “They were busy before the fire, and now have even more to deal with. Many don’t have time to come into formal behavioral health services. This CCP model will reach those who can benefit by talking about their experience, but may not be ready to seek formal therapy.”
Initial training for the program is online from the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration and nationally-certified trainers will also provide training in the model, she said.
The goal is to provide 9,677 contacts, though some may be duplicates, she said. In the initial two-month period after the fires, more than 40,000 contacts were made through the initial services program, she said. California HOPE is partnering with the Wildfire Mental Health Collaborative, which is aimed at meeting long-term needs for mental health after the disaster, she said.
It’s unclear how many people have been impacted by the fires, she said, and some can be affected by simply witnessing a disaster. An ongoing community needs assessment is taking place, and the FEMA-funded program will help further gauge needs, she said.
Common to see signs of stress
“It is common to show signs of stress after exposure to a disaster, and it is important to monitor your physical and emotional health,” said Wheelwright, a Santa Rosa-based practicing marriage and family therapist who specializes in trauma. “Try to identify early warning signs of stress, which usually show up in four areas: emotional, physical, behavioral, and problems in our thinking. Remember that connecting with others builds resilience and promotes recovery.”
Wheelwright’s own childhood home where her parents still live on Porter Creek Road near Safari West burned in the fires, and her family is in the process of rebuilding, she said.