Anxiety triggered by wildfires is normal, experts say, and it comes in many forms –

As soon as the weather turns dry and hot, Charlie Rensby starts to feel nervous. 

He was in Burns Lake, B.C., in 2018, when a wildfire prompted evacuation orders and alerts, putting his community on edge. 

“It was a really tough time for a lot of us,” he said. 

“Some of us, we lost personal belongings to the fire, animals … you know, a lot of us lost a lot. And it was a very traumatic experience for the entire community because whether you were losing it or not, you were put at risk or you knew someone who was.”

As more and more evacuation orders and alerts are issued throughout the province, residents in B.C.’s Interior are becoming increasingly familiar with the anxiety associated with wildfires and their unpredictable behaviour. 

When Rensby sees evacuation notices go out, his brain senses red flags.

 “That’s 100 per cent natural that people feel that way,” Rensby said. 

“That’s our survival instinct telling us things could potentially go wrong here and we need to pay attention. It’s very important that we try and control that anxiety and we don’t let it ruin our lives either.”

Clinical counsellor Dahne Harding lived in Louisiana for eight years, where the threat of hurricanes and flooding loomed on an annual basis. 

“It starts to rain and people get worried — they start emptying bottom cupboards and picking up their furniture,” she said.

Lower Post, B.C. in September 2018, after severe wildfire forced the evacuation of the community. (Philippe Morin/CBC)

“There are a large majority of people who have adverse experiences with adverse weather conditions and natural disasters and when that happens they do remember. Our brain is designed to remember things that are threatening to our wellbeing [so] that we can be better prepared next time.”

She said those reactions are normal; the brain is taking care of itself by being proactive, preparing for all possible outcomes and building resiliency. 

On the other hand, psychologist Kathy Keating said people whose homes are threatened year after year can become fatigued by the ongoing stress, or be desensitized and stop reacting to situations where they should be on high alert. 

“It’s a tricky, tricky place to navigate for people when they have those exposures summer after summer after summer.”

All these responses are normal, but when people turn to substance use, isolation or “deep hibernation spaces” of fear and anxiety, it becomes a problem.

Evacuees from the Fort McMurray wildfires collect donated necessities at an evacuation centre in Lac la Biche, Alta., in May 2016. (The Canadian Press/Jeff McIntosh)

Coping strategies

Keating recommends focusing on the things that can be controlled.  People can’t control the weather pattern, for example, but they can pack an evacuation bag and make sure they’re prepared to leave if they need to. 

“Focusing on what we can do in the short term is where our focus is best put,” she said.

Checking in with loved ones and letting them talk about their fears and grief when it comes to wildfires and other weather-related disasters is one of the best things people can do, Keating says. And if more formal support is required, help them find it. 

“We have a desire as humans to problem solve things, but sometimes people just need to be heard,” Keating said.

Rensby recommends keeping busy — whether that means helping out with the wildfires and evacuations directly or sitting at home playing video games to zone out.

“Keeping busy is always a very, very good way to cope,” he said.