Mandatory Evacuation: Facing Fear of the Unknown

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    Lane Therrell is a nurse practitioner, health coach, and contributing writer who lives with her husband in Napa, CA. This is how the recent Wine Country wildfires and a mandatory evacuation affected her.

    Mandatory Evacuation: Facing Fear of the Unknown

    Fire on the Mountain

    Last Tuesday evening at 6:15 pm, when my smartphone vibrated to announce an incoming text, I broke my personal rule against texting during meetings, and surreptitiously glanced down at the message. It was from my husband. The words, "We have been evacuated" stared up at me. I blinked twice to make sure I was seeing the message correctly.

    I had tracked the wildfires' progress after waking up before dawn the day before (Monday, October 9, 2017) to witness a long line of orange flames marching atop a mountain ridge, approximately eight air-miles west of our home in Napa, CA. The sight was terrifying. I chose to cope with my fear in those initial moments by telling myself that I had seen such sights before.

    Early local news reports indicated that the town of Santa Rosa was under siege. My husband, a former volunteer firefighter, and 30+-year local resident repeatedly assured me that the conditions were not right for the epic fire to become a direct threat to us in our isolated rural community. I trusted his judgment. So much so, that I felt confident about attending a meeting in Sacramento (more than an hour's drive away) on Tuesday evening. But no amount of professional expertise, experience, or local knowledge could have predicted the sudden wind change that caused the uncontained burn to jump a local road and trigger the mandatory evacuation of our neighborhood. How could I have so grossly underestimated the power of Mother Nature?


    As the true meaning of my husband's text message sank in, a patchwork quilt of emotional and spiritual concerns descended over me. Fear, anger, guilt, blame, anxiety, and visions of my own mortality all manifested within me simultaneously. Physically, the sensation was a surreal combination of stomach ache, indigestion, and headache. My first thoughts were, "I can't go home tonight!" and "What if I can't ever go home again?" Then my mind jumped to the realization that I didn't have any toiletries with me. I immediately chastised myself for not doing a better job of preparing and planning, and then I felt even more deeply ashamed because I was worrying about ridiculous things, like my toothbrush, when so many other people nearby were losing far more important things, like their lives.

    Taking Control

    While I didn't have to run out of an actively burning building in the middle of the night to survive, as many others did, I found that the inability to return home carried a unique burden of stress. Our lives had been disrupted due to circumstances beyond our control, and we were being required to hang out and wait. Even if our home and property remained intact, how long would we be displaced?

    Multiple variables including humidity, wind speed and direction, and air quality all contributed to the ambiguousness of the threat we were facing. We decided the best way to achieve peace of mind was to assert control wherever we could to reduce the power of the threat: We would control the things we could, and let go of the possible outcomes of the things we couldn't.

    First, we made sure our basic needs were met. We stayed with friends the first night, then chose to hotel-hop after that instead of going to a community shelter. We did not take an out-of-town vacation this year, so I suggested pretending this was our vacation. While it sounded like a good idea at first, as a way of achieving some semblance of control, the fear of the unknown looming in the background lent an unsettled quality to the occasion that was difficult to deny. At least my husband and I were able to enjoy each others' company as well as the love and support of friends and family.

    The stress and smoke inhalation took a physical toll, causing upset stomachs and wheezy lungs. Our solutions: eating wisely, getting back to exercising regularly, staying properly hydrated, and thinking optimistically.

    Beyond basic needs, we sought the best information we could find about the status of the fires and our immediate neighborhood. We obtained useful information by drips and drops through texts and emails from John's fire department contacts. Through public and private news sources, we learned that our property was secure and that we would likely be able to return after a reasonable amount of time away. The satellite imagery we found online confirmed the other news we were able to gather.

    Looking Within and Looking Ahead

    Facing this type of fear of the unknown gave me an opportunity for introspection. I realized, among other things, that I need to work on my personal priorities. During his time in the fire department, my husband adapted the standard emergency prioritization protocol of people property and environment to advise homeowners facing evacuation to consider saving people, pets, prescriptions, and papers-- in that order. Knowing this recommended order of prioritization will help me rethink how I prepare for adverse circumstances in the future.

    Meanwhile, in introspection mode, I began to see areas of my life where my priorities have been misallocated all along. For example, since attending nursing school, I have tended to prioritize paper over people, and I think that might be worth changing!

    Our six-day mandatory evacuation put me in a holding pattern that forced me to take stock of my life in a way that I'm not sure I would have done otherwise. I realized how unimportant material things are, and how little control we actually have over any external circumstances in our lives. I can't say I won't be caught off guard in the future, but I can say that I will be much more conscious and conscientious about my priorities and preparations moving forward.

    Applications to Nursing Practice

    As a nurse, I can't help thinking how this experience will inform my practice. Disasters affect those who are touched by them in different ways. Remember that those who are marginally affected are still affected. That's because stress is stress in terms of the body's response.

    Many have lost their homes and lives, during the catastrophic California wildfires, and thousands more fall into a middle ground or gray area of being affected. These people have significant needs. And the stresses are ongoing, as the immediate neighborhood and local region is changed forever, and strives to rebuild. No one stays the same after something like this-we all have to get our lives back.

    The secret to getting our lives back is resilience. In a month, when the immediate danger has passed and the national news has moved on to the next high drama, we will still be rebuilding our lives and our communities. There is a profound opportunity for caregivers in communities rebuilding post-disaster, to help those who are non-critically affected. Encourage resilience by listening to their stories, offering support, and steering them toward any and all available resources for physical and psychological health.

    As for that patchwork quilt of emotional and spiritual concerns that initially enveloped me when I learned that my neighborhood was being evacuated, the initial fear, anger, guilt, blame, anxiety and visions of mortality have transformed into strength, acceptance, and resolve. My experience is but a microcosm of all the cataclysmic events that have claimed lives and property and shaped current events over the last few months. Long-lasting consequences including Fear of the unknown, survivor guilt, and the need for resilience will continue to affect our residents and communities here in California Wine Country long after the wildfires have been contained and the imminent dangers are over.

    Questions for Discussion:

    Have you been touched by disaster? What are your priorities? How might building resilience help you or those you know and love who have been affected by disasters?

    Sources and Resources:

    Gift From Within - PTSD Resources for Survivors and Caregivers
    Guilt Following Traumatic Events - Survivor Guilt - PTSD Resources - Gift From Within

    Study: Fear of the Unknown Compounds Many Anxiety Disorders
    Study: Fear of the Unknown Compounds Many Anxiety Disorders | Psychology Today

    What is Resilience?
    What is Resilience? | Psych Central
    Last edit by Joe V on Jun 15, '18
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    About Lane Therrell FNP, MSN, RN, HTCP, MSN, RN, NP

    Lane Therrell is a nurse practitioner, an adjunct instructor at Samuel Merritt University, and a health empowerment coach in private practice.

    Joined: Oct '16; Posts: 79; Likes: 245
    Wellness Coach, Clinical Nursing Instructor; from CA , US
    Specialty: 6 year(s) of experience in Family Nurse Practitioner

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  3. by   tnbutterfly
    Thank you for sharing your story. As if seeing the fires in the distance weren't frightening enough, leaving your home and not knowing what to expect must be horrifying.
  4. by   Lane Therrell FNP, MSN, RN, HTCP
    Your quotable quotes capture the essence of humanity. There is indeed good and bad in all experiences, circumstances that make us struggle can lead to inner growth, and the value of expressing expressing emotion cannot be understated. These words are such powerful and poignant reminders that we are all human beings, first and foremost.
  5. by   Lane Therrell FNP, MSN, RN, HTCP
    Brief update: In continuing to observe my personal response to this experience, I am very conscious of how profound the lingering effects of an event like this are, both physically and emotionally. Our post-evacuation homecoming was accompanied by poor air quality and a thick layer of ash on all household surfaces despite the fact that all the windows were closed when the evacuation order came. While some much-needed rainfall improved air quality in terms of particulate matter, the moisture intensified the pungent odors of combustion, which stirred up old memories and emotions.
  6. by   bagladyrn
    I went through some of this recently.
    I'm on a travel contract in Oregon and the entire town I am housed in was evacuated.
    I was at work on night shift when the house supervisor came around and asked me where I was living. When I replied she told me that there was an alert for possible evacuation in that area. Fifteen minutes later she came back and told me it had been upgraded to "Leave now.".
    I have a friend traveling with me so I had to clock out, drive home, wake her and grab a few things and get out.
    Luckily the hospital is in a different town so I was able to get a motel room and avoid staying at a shelter so I could continue working.
    Just to top things off, Hurricane Irma was at the same time so my mother and my house were in the path of that. Thanks to cell phones we were able to keep in touch during our mutual evacuations.
  7. by   bagladyrn
    Now that the fires are out I was awakened today be my phone blaring an emergency alert warning of mud and landslides and flash floods along my route to work! We are currently under some weird kind of "river" of rain from the Pacific.
    Told my recruiter for my next contract I want to go somewhere that no natural disasters happen! She says good luck with that!