While rebuilding from wildfires, Oregon also needs to tend more attentively to personal needs

With much of the state in drought conditions, teams better be ready for another wildfire season – including mental health teams

February 28, 2022 5:30 am

Last week, nearly 18 months after losing everything in the Beachie Creek Fire, Ron Carmickle sat in front of a computer testifying before the House Special Committee on Wildfire Recovery.

Committee Chair Rep. Paul Evans, D-Monmouth, called the meeting to hear from individuals whose lives had been upended the night of September 7, 2020, when all of Oregon seemed to ignite. Twenty-one fires were stoked to life that last weekend of summer, more than 40,000 people were forced to evacuate, entire forests, towns, schools, homes, businesses and churches were incinerated, their ash falling from the burnt-orange sky like a dark snow.

Carmickle told the committee that he lost his home, shop, and collection of antique cars that were the foundation of his business.

“But all that,” he said, “could be replaced.”

What couldn’t be replaced was 100 years of family history. “

All my pictures…my children’s first drawings, their baby shoes, the pinewood derby cars my son and I built… Seventy years of my life are gone…There is nothing left to be proud of, nothing left to share, nothing left to show you where I’ve come from. The Ron Carmickle that was, is gone.”

Committee members appeared to take a deep breath. In previous weeks they had heard from state and county agencies about the important work that had occurred since the 2020 fires. The reports and graphs were optimistic. Permits were being issued, homes were being built, emergency dollars were beefing up fire departments, replacing trucks and equipment, and helping people design and build more energy efficient and fire proof homes.

But agency reports are dry reading compared to human stories, and over two and a half hours lawmakers heard from people whose loss could not be repaired with just plywood and nails.

“Our canyon is in a crisis,” said Vickie Larson Hill from Detroit. “People are traumatized, they’re depressed, they’ve lost hope.”

Others talked of needing addiction services and having thoughts of suicide. As a clinical social worker, Hill provides mental health service two days a week in Albany.

“There are just not the services in rural Oregon to help people cope,” she said.

What Hill and others were pointing to is the toll climate change has on the human psyche. Their stories emphasized that Oregon’s mega fires don’t just create piles of ash and twisted metal, but homelessness, unemployment, depression, domestic violence, child abuse and addiction.

This is bad news for a state that has largely ignored the mental health needs of our residents. For years, Oregon has had some of the highest addiction and suicide rates in the nation, and that was before Covid and ice storms and drought and fires.

Survivors at the hearing said much of their depression came from the aftershock of realizing there really was not the help there that they had expected. People found getting consistent information “near impossible,” getting permits to be “a nightmare” and getting insurance companies to pay up to be a form of “psychological warfare.”

These are relatively straightforward matters to address and Evans said his committee will get their colleagues on board to help. The harder work is the mental health component, getting crisis counselors, therapists, addiction specialists, and rehab up and running in the more remote parts of our state.

The good news is that in October, legislators did make an historic investment in our mental health system. Some $500 million has been dedicated to organizations and programs which should reach underserved areas with behavioral health care programs such as drug rehab and counseling.

In addition, $10 million will be set aside to create mobile crisis intervention teams – trauma professionals who will head to communities devastated by fires, such as Talent and Detroit.

Still, while mobile crisis units move on to the next community, climate change appears to be here to stay. It sears and floods and shutters businesses and forces exoduses.

Some describe loss in war terms – casualties, bomb blasts, PTSD. Some talk about an impenetrable depression, while others find that the pain and loss begins to set in only after they are done rebuilding. All hope Oregon never sees another fire season like the one they lived through.

Climatologists, however, are’t offering much hope. As of this month, 75% of Oregon is in a severe drought and they don’t think it’s going to get better anytime soon.

So, fire agencies need to ready their teams, FEMA needs to be ready with boots on the ground, electric companies need to bury their lines, and state lawmakers need to make sure the mental health care community is funded and ready to travel into impacted areas so that people are better able to rebuild their lives.

CORRECTION: State Rep. Paul Evans is from Monmouth. A previous version incorrectly said he was from Dallas.

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Naseem Rakha

Naseem Rakha is a former public radio reporter, news show host and commentator. She is an author of the novel "The Crying Tree," which was inspired by her time covering two executions in Oregon. Naseem spends her time hiking, climbing, rafting and photographing areas throughout the American West.