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For survivors of traumatic fires, mental health funding

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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.

Elece Hempel, executive director of Petaluma People Services Center said her nonprofit will have four teams of two people conducting outreach, a team leader, and administrative and financial support.

“It’s not just therapy, it’s more outreach and really getting out in the public having conversations and connecting with these individuals and kind of helping to manage the immediate stress and then getting them connected,” she said.

Shannon Ryan, the nonprofit’s director of counseling and prevention who will lead the Petaluma team, did not respond to multiple requests for comment.

Hempel said that there has been a small increase in demand for counseling services at her organization, but the longer-term impacts have yet to be seen. Hempel, who lost her second home in Lake County during the Valley Fire, said meeting fire victims in their communities is a valuable tool.

Training ‘lay crisis counselors’

“When we lost the house, if you don’t have to think about it, you pretty much put it in some kind of box in the back of your brain to not have to deal with it,” she said. “If someone is there to ask for help, you say ‘yes, this is what I need,’ but if someone is not there asking, you don’t think to ask.”

The program will also train locals as “lay crisis counselors,” said Sonoma County Supervisor Shirlee Zane. It is intended to help residents reinstate a sense of control and to understand and express their emotions to acclimate to the fires and regulate their stress, she said.

“What we’re trying to do is reach people who wouldn’t ordinarily be reached,” she said.

For some survivors, such as Tami Bates-Hurt, whose mobile home at Orchard Park near Coffey Park was destroyed in the fires, daily life is difficult.

“I think it’s more of a struggle now than before,” Bates-Hurt wrote on The Press Democrat’s Facebook page, in response to a request for residents to share their tales.

“The reality is setting in more lately for me. My struggles are harder. I’m feeling defeated, angry, tired and so much more. Things affect me differently. I feel distanced and alone...I just want to feel settled and happy again. Each day I try to be better and take it one day at a time, but it’s so very hard at times. I’m afraid to reach out or get help because I have no idea even where to begin …”

(Press Democrat Reporter Martin Espinoza contributed to this report. Contact Hannah Beausang at hannah.beausang@arguscourier.com.)