Anxiety Taking Toll on Fire Evacuees and Exacerbating Other Health Problems

Tents for Valley Fire evacuees at the Napa County Fairgrounds in Calistoga. (Danielle Venton/KQED)

More than 23,000 people have been evacuated in the face of the Valley Fire in Lake County and the Butte Fire east of Stockton. Officials have not set a timeline for when residents can return to their homes — if they have homes to return to.

As firefighters struggle to contain those fires and others burning across the state, relief workers are preparing to staff evacuation centers through the end of the week or longer.

One of those centers is the Napa County Fairgrounds in Calistoga, and it’s a study in contrasts right now. There are big signs posted in carnival lettering that beckon people to buy tickets for the Calistoga Speedway. You can imagine the cotton candy hanging in the food and beverage window.

But today, hundreds of people who have lost everything they own line up for lunch served by the Red Cross.

Jenea Rubio walks with her husband, son and daughter, carrying plates of potato salad and pulled pork. They fled the wildfires in Hidden Valley over the weekend.

“We literally had a four-minute warning to get out,” Rubio says. “We had no time to grab [anything]. We left with the clothes on our backs.”

Then, on Sunday night, they were watching the news on TV and saw the remnants of their own home on the screen.

“It was a video, so we were able to watch it and see that there’s nothing left,” Rubio said. “At all. Anywhere on the property.”

Rubio says knowing the house is gone is better than constantly wondering what happened to it.

“I just kind of felt a sense of peace once I knew, and I had an answer,” she says. “Well, it is what it is. We’re going to deal with it and move on.”

For a lot of other people here, the anxiety of not knowing is getting to them. Dr. Colleen Townsend, a family practice doctor in Napa, is helping to staff the makeshift medical center inside one of the buildings on the fairgrounds. She says anxiety is one of the main complaints. And that is making other health conditions worse.

“So many folks in this area are really affected by chronic illness,” Townsend says, especially diabetes and high blood pressure. Because people were evacuated so quickly, many didn’t have time to grab medications.

“Certainly in these settings, their blood sugar and blood pressure are already rising just from the stress of the occasion,” Townsend said. “Without adequate supplies of their medicines, that can cause acute symptoms like feeling shaky, nausea, sometimes dehydration.”

Raul Arroyo lies on a cot recovering from smoke inhalation and a high blood pressure scare. He’s on six different drugs, but he hasn’t taken any of them in three days.

There was “no time to get anything,” he says. “No medication, no nothing.”

He lives in an apartment complex in Middletown. Many of his neighbors are disabled, and he tried to help them get out as the fire rushed into town.

From his cot, he tries to describe how he’s feeling. “Stress, helping people, because I thought I wasn’t good enough, and see the thing coming, stressful, really bad,” he says. ” ’Cause you don’t know what to do, you know? That’s worry, you know, lots of worry.”

Mental health staff say most people here are still in shock. But as the days go by, they are expecting to see more people with signs of post-traumatic stress disorder and depression.

Anxiety Taking Toll on Fire Evacuees and Exacerbating Other Health Problems 15 September,2015April Dembosky


April Dembosky

April Dembosky is the health reporter for The California Report and KQED News. She covers health policy and public health, and has reported extensively on the economics of health care, the roll-out of the Affordable Care Act in California, mental health and end-of-life issues.

Her work is regularly rebroadcast on NPR and has been recognized with awards from the Society for Professional Journalists (for sports reporting), and the Association of Health Care Journalists (for a story about pediatric hospice). Her hour-long radio documentary about home funerals won the Best New Artist award from the Third Coast International Audio Festival in 2009.

April occasionally moonlights on the arts beat, covering music and dance. Her story about the first symphony orchestra at Burning Man won the award for Best Use of Sound from the Public Radio News Directors Inc.

Before joining KQED in 2013, April covered technology and Silicon Valley for The Financial Times, and freelanced for Marketplace and The New York Times. She is a graduate of the University of California at Berkeley Graduate School of Journalism and Smith College.

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