Mountain Drive volunteer firefighters watch the Tea Fire.
Paul Wellman (file)

In July 2008 the Gap Fire roared out of the foothills to consume nearly 10,000 acres of the Goleta Valley; four months later the Tea Fire hit the Santa Barbara area, gobbling another 2,000 acres of some of the South Coast’s priciest real estate.

A person might think that two such conflagrations would be enough to make everyone extremely cautious when dealing with dry brush and spark-creating equipment. Instead, in May 2009 locals confronted the human-caused, 8,700-acre-plus Jesusita Fire.

Vic Cox

While the three wildfires together destroyed more than 300 structures, fatalities and injuries were low: One man died of a heart attack and 55 people were treated for injuries. Approximately 50,000 people were reported evacuated from their homes and residences, some more than once, during this roughly 10-month period.

What effects did these stressful conditions have on evacuees’ mental health, wondered two UC Santa Barbara researchers? Answers — some surprising and some not — are now emerging, thanks to the work of Walid Afifi, professor of communication, and clinical psychologist Erika Felix, a Graduate School of Education researcher.

Using a random sample drawn from the zip codes in the fire zones, the two social scientists constructed a phone survey of 337 respondents who answered questions about their former states of mind. Forty-two percent of these were forced to evacuate (and 13 percent of evacuees had to leave two or more times), staying away from their residences for at least one day.

“When we asked which fire they judged most stressful, the majority by far chose the Jesusita Fire,” said Afifi. This despite the facts that the Gap Fire covered more territory and lasted twice as long as the Jesusita and the Tea Fire destroyed twice as many homes. All evacuees picked the fire that forced them to flee.

Crowds gathering to watch the Gap Fire.
Paul Wellman (file)

Afifi, a specialist in the role uncertainty plays in people’s lives, is still analyzing the 2009 survey. However, among the results so far is that those who evacuated and those who did not reported different kinds of psychological uncertainty. Those who stayed had greater doubts about their personal safety than those who left, for example.

“Evacuations seemed to cushion the debilitating effects of uncertainty in some cases,” he noted. However, the survey’s limitations prevented exploration of all the subject’s complexities, he added.

Another finding: Initial evidence, and intuitive thinking, suggested that if one evacuation can cause a person’s spirit to sink, two or more would create even greater negative effects. Further analysis contradicted this logic, though Afifi continues to probe the data.

In the midst of a wildfire, doubts arise regarding personal safety, the safety of family and friends, and the safety of property. People generally seek relevant information from media, but Afifi argued that these sources vary widely in effectiveness. He said they often increase uncertainty, even if the information is accurate, rather than reduce it.

An example, said Afifi, cited as “harmful because it increases uncertainty,” was the repeated television airing of the same house burning without mention of its exact location.

On a positive note, the survey also strengthened the idea that a disaster can bring a group together to work beneficially against common problems, a notion social scientists call communal coping. “People who worked together as a team were able to essentially wipe out the negative effects of uncertainty,” explained Afifi. This is particularly true in families that operate in balance, with someone providing the center for a web of caring relationships.

Conversely, a dysfunctional family or a corrupted social network not only provides no buffer against uncertainty but creates ground for spreading uncertainty like a virus. In such cases the stress felt by one person can be quickly passed to others. Social scientists know this phenomenon as stress contagion.

To Afifi and his colleagues studying disasters, natural or manmade, the real task is to translate what scientists discover into positive actions that help people prepare for the worst scenarios and speed healing after the event — in other words, to truly learn the lessons nature and human history can teach and apply them to the world we are leaving to posterity.


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