Traditional Therapy Is Not How These Thomas Fire Survivors Are Dealing With Trauma

Jake Colborn, from left, Jessica Colborn, and Lorrie Colborn, who lost their home during the Thomas Fire, stand on their property in Upper Ojai. (Photo by Kyle Grillot for LAist)

People affected by California's destructive and dangerous wildfires could face long-lasting psychological harm, like post-traumatic stress disorder and depression. However some wildfire victims, especially those who live in rural areas, find it hard to reach out for, or accept, mental health care.

There is one group of people in rural Upper Ojai whose lives were altered by last year's massive Thomas Fire, which broke out on Dec. 4, 2017, and ultimately burned more than 280,000 acres and destroyed 775 homes. They are working together to heal and move on from their losses.

A BURNED BARN, A LOST WEDDING DRESS

Jessica Colborn, 40, is part of that group. Driving down Highway 150, she points out parts of her childhood, like the ranch where she rode horses. But the ranch's barn is now gone, destroyed by the Thomas fire.

She turns down a small dirt road that leads to where her parents' dream house once stood. In 1977, her father built a big craftsman nestled next to the Los Padres National Forest. It's also gone— another victim of the Thomas fire.

Jake Colborn, who lost his home during the Thomas Fire, holds a t-shirt with an illustration of his former home on his property in Upper Ojai. (Photo by Kyle Grillot for LAist)

Her parents now live on the property in an RV

"[It's] pretty heart wrenching talking about things that are lost," Colborn tells me.

Her wedding dress was destroyed. She was hoping that she could have passed it down to her daughter.

She points to one part of the property.

"So they have a big — had a big workshop here," says Colborn.

Even though the wildfire was a year ago, she still sometimes catches herself talking about the house in the present tense.

"I CAN'T FORCE PEOPLE TO HAVE THERAPY"

There hasn't been much research on the psychological impact of large wildfires.

However, a team of researchers from UCLA, the U.S. Department of Agriculture and the RAND Corporation conducted one study after a massive fire in rural Arizona in 2011 and found that people living near the fire did suffer psychological distress — even if they didn't lose their homes.

In Ventura County, an initiative called California Hope — a joint effort from the county's behavioral health department and the FEMA — offers free counseling, wellness education and referrals to mental health services.

But Trevor Quirk, an Upper Ojai resident and founder of the local nonprofit Upper Ojai Relief, says the people who live in his community are resilient and tough, and aren't easily going to admit that the fire affected them. (I asked Quirk if I could meet with wildfire victims but he told me no one wanted to meet with me, a journalist from Los Angeles.)

Many therapists have come to Upper Ojai and offered free counseling sessions, he says.

"They're still sending me Facebook messages saying, no one's signing up for my services." says Quirk. "And I'm like, 'Well, what do you want me to do? I can't force people to have therapy.'"

"IT'S NOT LIKE A THERAPY SESSION"

A year ago, as she watched her parents try to piece their lives back together and rebuild their home, Jessica Colborn decided that she wanted to create a space for people in her community to talk about their losses and frustrations.

So she formed the Survivors Circle. It's a group of around 15 to 20 Upper Ojai fire victims that meets the third Sunday of each month to talk about whatever they are dealing with. Lately people have been frustrated with how long it's taking to get permits to rebuild their homes.

Colborn believes that the group is easy to access because members don't have to talk about their feelings, but feel comforted that the people around them are going exactly through the same feelings.

"It's not like a therapy session." Colborn maintains. "It's just like, 'Hey friends, let's get together, have a set time, a set meal, and talk.'"

While this may not be traditional mental health assistance, it does create a space, however small, for people to heal.

Even Jessica's parents, Jake and Lorrie, attend the Survivors Circle meetings. They say they've gotten to know their neighbors better and feel free to voice their frustrations..

"The best thing is knowing that there are other people that are in the same boat as you are," Jake Colborn says.


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