Fire Extra: Doc Talk Delivers Advice After Crisis

The aftermath of a disaster like the recent Northern California fires can leave adults and children feeling anxious, stressed and fearful.

On Thursday, NorthBay Healthcare clinical psychologist Dr. Amber Stirlen spent nearly an hour talking with Facebook followers about how to cope with the impact of natural disasters during #OurDocTalk.

Despite some technology problems during the Facebook Live streaming video chat, Dr. Stirlen was able to focus on how to recognize the signs of stress in adults and children, and provide options for dealing with those stresses.

Dr. Amber Stirlen chats with NorthBay Facebook followers via Facebook Live.Explaining that her own family had to be evacuated from the Green Valley area during the Atlas Fire, Dr. Stirlen said she and her family experienced some of the same feelings and thoughts that others in the disaster area were undoubtedly feeling.

“I found myself, as a parent, wondering ‘Are we going to have a home to come back to?’ as the fire grew closer and closer,” she noted.

Dr. Stirlen has experience with disaster counseling, having helped the Red Cross following Hurricane Katrina. While a hurricane and wildfires are not the same, those who live through them have some of the same issues, she noted.

“With a hurricane, you tend to get some warning in advance. And there were some areas in California that had warnings and with Nixle alerts and constant updates … but some people like those in Santa Rosa may not have gotten a warning as the fire reached them homes,” she said. “And whether it’s a hurricane or a fire, you are talking about something that is life-threatening. It threatens your livelihood, your children, your well-being and your future.”

All of that can add up to severe stress and anxiety. Add in constant media reports and information spreading on social media, and for some people it can simply be overwhelming.

“For those who watch it on media over and over again, I often advise just try to refrain a bit, particularly now when we are a week out from the event,” Dr. Stirlen said. “If you are not in the direct area of the fire and smoke, try to … limit the time you watch the coverage rather than watching it all day long.”

Asked by a follower on Facebook whether people will suffer with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, Dr. Stirlen emphasized that most people will do fine after a few weeks.

"We talk about circles of vulnerability,” she explained. “In the first circle are people closest geographically to the disaster. The second includes those with psych-social proximity, so they may have lost someone or lost a business or home in the fire. The third group includes people with a past trauma history, so someone who recently lost a family member or a beloved pet. These are the groups most at risk

She noted that the vast majorty of people (60 percent) will fare well and bounce back quickly. Another 20 percent will deal with some minor stress issues that last a little longer than a few weeks. Only 20 percent will have more intense stress issues, she said. For them, reaching out to a health professional is important.

“If you find you are jumping at sound of sirens,  are not able to focus, not eating, not sleeping… if you are unable to function at work or school, those would be more significant things to reach out” for help with, she said.

For parents, she advised keeping an eye on how children are doing. Older children and teen-agers may be able to verbalize their concerns but younger children may not. They may, instead, show signs of stress by saying they have a tummy ache or body aches and pains.

Talking about the feelings and concerns is vital — for children and adults, she added.

The video of the discussion can be viewed above and is also on the NorthBay Facebook page and on the NorthBay YouTube channel.