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California Camp Fire Survivors Face The Horror All Over Again In 2020

A camp crew truck was destroyed on Stringtown Rd. in a flare-up which burned over the truck in the Bear Fire on Friday in Oroville, Calif.
Brian van der Brug
Los Angeles Times via Getty Images
A camp crew truck was destroyed on Stringtown Rd. in a flare-up which burned over the truck in the Bear Fire on Friday in Oroville, Calif.

Linda Oslin and her husband lost everything when the Camp Fire raced into their neighborhood in Paradise, Calif., in the fall of 2018.

She's in her 70s — he in his 80s — and they decided they didn't have it in them to try to rebuild. That could take years. So they found a place for sale out of the woods and farther down the mountain near Oroville, Calif., where they've started to rebuild their lives.

Except for one thing.

They've since had to evacuate from three more wildfires, including this past week when the Bear Fire exploded near the town, burning an untold number of structures and claiming at least 10 lives.

"And every incident I organize a little more," Oslin says.

When she heard reports that the Bear Fire was burning into the village of Berry Creek, they didn't wait for the official evacuation call. They left, knowing that some of their neighbors died in 2018 because they couldn't get out of Paradise.

"Knowing how evacuation traffic can go, we were stuck in it in the Camp Fire, I said let's finish packing the vehicles, secure everything and just leave," Oslin says.

This time the Oslins are pretty sure their house is still standing — for now. They're not sure when they'll be able to go home though. They're staying again with the same friends who took them in after their harrowing Camp Fire escape. Anything from just the slight smell of smoke to the evacuation itself has triggered trauma for them.

"Well we're doing OK," Oslin says, trying to stay upbeat. "We do have our share of PTSD at times."

Researchers were only just starting to get a handle on the cumulative effects of trauma on California wildfire survivors from previous bad fire years like 2017 and 2018. And now, 2020.

"It's hard to imagine another fire not being a trigger for a lot of people," says Irva Hertz-Picciotto, professor of public health at the University of California-Davis.

Hertz-Picciotto, who also directs the university's Environmental Health Sciences Center, has spent much of the past two years interviewing Camp Fire survivors. She hopes to give policymakers better tools to help people recovering from disasters.

And she's researched plenty of them in her career.

But wildfires are starting to distinguish themselves even in this era of disasters such as hurricanes that can seem overwhelming in scale. Wildfires are proving to no longer be just once in a lifetime, big, traumatic events for a particular place.

"Now that we're in a situation where we can now expect this on an annual basis, that strikes me as an even bigger problem than other disasters, like the earthquake happened, or the volcano, and we had to rebuild," Hertz-Piccioto says.

She says we need to build back up our infrastructure so that wildfire survivors know they'll have things like safe, temporary housing and mental health support, which was lacking after the 2018 California fires.

Researchers also say bad wildfires like these on the West Coast are the latest signal that we shouldn't necessarily even be rebuilding or encouraging more development in places we know will burn. In the libertarian-leaning West, loose building codes and other factors have been attributed to an explosion in development in wild lands that are prone to fire.

Yet therein lies one of the biggest and thorniest issues facing the West, and many other parts of the country in this era of climate change. Many people are living in high fire risk areas in California and Oregon in particular because it's the only place they can afford to.

This quandary weighs on Linda Oslin's mind all the time. She and her husband intentionally found a new place to live and rebuild their lives that wasn't in the woods. They have three acres of open pasture. They cleared out all the trees around their house and even rebuilt the driveway so emergency vehicles can get in.

Still, here they are evacuated and they could lose their home again.

"It appears that if you live in California you really have no choice in the matter," Oslin says. "It does not matter any longer where you live."

So Oslin and her husband focus on what they believe they can control: being prepared and ready to evacuate to safety at all times.

"Just have a go bag," she says. "The one thing that saved our bacon was having all of our important papers."

Those important papers were about all they left with when fleeing the 2018 Camp Fire. It made things a lot easier in the aftermath, something they're prepared to do again should the worst happen with the Bear Fire.

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Kirk Siegler
As a correspondent on NPR's national desk, Kirk Siegler covers rural life, culture and politics from his base in Boise, Idaho.