Don Rumball (centre) — who with his wife Marianne (right) manages the Boston Flats trailer park near Ashcroft — helped Samaritan’s Purse volunteers sift through the ashes of the dozens of homes lost there during the Elephant Hill wildfire. He is pictured washing coins that were found by a volunteer. Don and Marianne lost their home and all their possessions in the fire. Photo courtesy of Samaritan’s Purse.

How to cope with stress after the wildfires

Stress will vary from person to person; but there are ways of dealing with it, and helping others.

When Dr. Geneviève Belleville—a professor of psychology at Laval University—hears about what people in the area have experienced in recent weeks with the Elephant Hill wildfire, she says it is very similar to what was witnessed in the Fort McMurray community after the wildfire in 2016.

“Everybody has been evacuated, or has been touched by the problem. Everybody knows someone who experienced serious loss. There can be some ‘survivor’ guilt about letting yourself feel whatever you have been experiencing, because you are comparing yourself to somebody who has had it worse than you.

“This is a common reaction, I think, when an entire community has been subjected to a disaster or catastrophe.”

Speaking about people who had to be evacuated but have now returned home, Belleville says there are two kinds of stressors for them. “First there is the fear of what could have been. Of course now they know their home or their pet or their neighbours are okay; but when you are evacuating you don’t know what the outcome is going to be.

“The experience of fear during the evacuation is really important. If you feel you are going to lose everything, or that you are going to lose somebody you are really close to, this can make a big impression on your brain, and cause some reminiscences afterward that are going to be difficult to deal with.

“The other kind of stressor is the day-to-day adaptation to the disaster. Maybe they didn’t lose their home, but maybe they have cleaning to do, or they have some replacements to make. They have to deal with the insurance companies, or maybe some of them changed their work schedules or lost their jobs. In terms of the number of stressors that can accumulate after experiencing a disaster, this is also going to predict how people can continue to adapt and return to their day-to-day functioning or not.”

Belleville says that those who lost their homes will be living with extensive trauma. “You not only lose the things you need to function; you lose memories, and things that you are emotionally attached to. That’s a lot to take in, and obviously a very impactful event.

“These people are going to need all the support they can get; tangible support, such as being lodged somewhere during reconstruction, and also emotional support, in the sense of having people to talk to who will listen to them and welcome what they have to say without trying to be too optimistic.

“With good intentions we might want to say to somebody ‘Everything is not so bad, everything is going to be alright, you’re alive, that’s what counts.’ But sometimes these good intentions are a bit dismissive of what the person is trying to express, whether it’s sadness or frustration. The first prediction factor after a traumatic event will be social support. I always say that the first job of the entourage is really to listen and support the person, and welcome the person to talk about what she’s going through when she’s going to need it.”

Belleville is asked about people in Ashcroft who did not lose anything, but still lived through a traumatic event and watched people they know lose so much. “Their experience is important and significant and distressful too. Because your neighbour had it worse than you does not mean that you’re not suffering, or living through something that is difficult. The first thing is to acknowledge that something is difficult.

“When you are living through painful emotions, just saying that they don’t have to be there, or that they’re not supposed to be there, does not make them go away. The first step is acknowledging what you’re going through, and really assessing if it is a stress on your day-to-day functioning. Is it just something you think you are going through, or is it something that is impacting or altering your day-to-day functioning; in which case you may need to have professional help, even though you haven’t lost anything.

“These people did go through something very traumatic and very stressful.”

Talking to people, and getting emotional support, is critical, says Belleville; but there are other things people can do to help themselves de-stress. “There are some exercises that are good for people with anxiety problems, or who are going through any stressors. And having fun: I know it’s difficult in a community that has been through a disaster, but find a way to have social activities, to connect with friends and family.

“There are a lot of stressors, and a lot of things to take care of, but having fun, relaxing, having activities that are social and pleasant are also important things to get into your schedule.

“Most people who are going through a disaster: it’s amazing the number of people who are resilient. Some people go through what we call post-traumatic growth. The painful experience has opened their eyes on what their true value is, and what they want to focus their life on. Of course, these events are terrible, and we’re not saying they’re good things to experience; but there is hope that most people, with time and with care, are going to get better. Most of them are going to be resilient; and some of them may even find that this event maybe helped them change their life for the better.”

Get local stories you won't find anywhere else right to your inbox.
Sign up here

Just Posted

Crews responding to vehicle fire on Highway 97 south of Williams Lake

A witness said the 150 Mile House volunteer fire department is attending, traffic lanes still open

LETTER: Williams Lake Dry Grad Committee officially cancels festivities for 2020

Socially distanced photos to adorn some local businesses

IG Wealth Management Williams Lake gifts iPads to Cariboo Place for residents’ use

With long-term care homes on lockdown during COVID-19, residents visit family virtually

BREAKING: Jayson Gilbert charged in murder of Richard “Savage” Duncan

Gilbert also faces first degree murder in the Rudy Johnson Bridge death of Branton Regner

RCMP seize stolen vehicles, equipment and firearms in Quesnel

Quesnel resident facing multiple charges

B.C. legislature coming back June 22 as COVID-19 emergency hits record

Pandemic restrictions now longer than 2017 wildfire emergency

Facing changes together: Your community, your journalists

Thanks for helping the Williams Lake Tribune continue its mission to provide trusted local news

B.C.’s essential grocery, hardware store employees should get pandemic pay: retail group

Only B.C.’s social, health and corrections workers are eligible for top-ups

Edmonton, Vancouver and Toronto vying to be NHL hubs, but there’s a catch

The NHL unveiled a return-to-play plan that would feature 24 teams

B.C. sees 9 new COVID-19 cases, one death as officials watch for new cases amid Phase Two

Number of confirmed active cases is at 244, with 37 people in hospital

Nanaimo senior clocked going 50 km/hr over limit says her SUV shouldn’t be impounded

RCMP say they can’t exercise discretion when it comes to excessive speeding tickets

Illicit-drug deaths up in B.C. and remain highest in Canada: chief coroner

More than 4,700 people have died of overdoses since B.C. declared a public health emergency in early 2016

CMHC sees declines in home prices, sales, starts that will linger to end of 2022

CMHC said average housing prices could fall anywhere from nine to 18 per cent in its forecast

B.C. Paralympian named to Canada’s Sports Hall of Fame

Three-time world and Paralympic gold medalist Sonja Gaudet is part of 11-member class

Most Read