Editor’s note: July 12 marks one month since the Cinema Court Fire along Pack Creek that consumed nine homes and an accessory living unit.
On a quiet, almost-summer evening, sirens suddenly echoed across the valley. Like many, I stepped outside to see why: A huge column of dense black smoke was rising just south of the city limits. BIG FIRE!
Nine homes were destroyed quickly, changing lives forever. Gone were family heirlooms, photographs, cuddle blankets, shoes, toothbrushes, prescriptions, glasses, hearing aids, mortgage papers, birth certificates, shops, garages, tools, toys and livelihoods. Everything in minutes. One hundred and fifty people were evacuated from the path of the fast-moving wind-driven firestorm.
Local, state and federal fire and law enforcement agencies and other responders relied on extensive training to do everything to save lives and properties. These are our families, friends and neighbors too. It’s tough on them to see structures lost, but they should be proud, and we are grateful it wasn’t worse.
Thankfully, they kept that fire from continuing its wild pursuit up Pack Creek. All night the winds changed, and the putrid smell of house-fire eventually blanketed most of Moab and the valley. We all became victims that night.
Even while the fire was still sending flames and smoke upward, this amazing community moved just as fast. Social media exploded. No one needed to ask for help. Food was provided to all the evacuees and emergency responders not once, but twice on that awful night and in the days following. Motels broadcasted over airwaves “free rooms for all fire victims,” and everyone had a bed to sleep in and a bath to scrub off the memory-inducing stench of fire.
The next day, laundromats opened their doors and stores just showed up with food, water and supplies. A call went out for electrolyte drinks, important when drinking so much water, and cases quickly ended up at the firefighters’ cache. Restaurants delivered meals to emergency responders. Friends dropped off care packages. Gift cards and cash donations, big and small, were provided to those affected.
Shops opened their doors so people could take back some control of their out-of-control lives to select personal items of their choice. Collection jars filled. Contractors started organizing equipment. Insurance adjusters began knocking on doors, providing initial checks for housing and incidentals. Interviews were done with the media to keep the public apprised. Fundraising events are still being planned. The time will come for critiques. We will all learn what worked and what didn’t.
The closer a person is to a disaster with horrific sights, sounds, smells, tastes and sensations, the more complicated rebound it is to reach mental and physical equilibrium. Current and past life situations also feed into the matrix of traumatic stress reactions. Everyone in a small community like ours is impacted to different degrees. Remember the mantra, “Normal reactions to abnormal events.”
Reactions are physical, mental and emotional: zombie-like numbness, disorientation, confusion, trouble concentrating, frustration, anger, mood swings, information overload, sleeping problems, headaches, digestive upset, irritability, repeated vivid, unwanted intrusive images and thoughts, questioning your god, nightmares and night terrors (reliving the event as if it is still happening). Memories of past traumatic events can be triggered. Kids need more attention, experience separation anxiety. Some regress to younger behaviors like bed-wetting and thumb sucking. Patience, age appropriate discussions and holding them close will help.
While every survivor needs private time to “regroup,” some people withdraw and isolate themselves. Be easy on yourself. Forgive yourself if you express anger. Keep a schedule, eat well and get enough rest. Exercise. Avoid excessive caffeine and alcohol. Don’t overexert yourself in the heat. Drink adequate water and electrolytes. If you don’t feel well, consult your doctor. Symptoms should reduce in frequency and magnitude over two or three weeks, but if they persist, please seek professional help from the mental health community just like you would from your doctor if you broke an arm. You want to derail post-traumatic and other stress disorders quickly.
Let’s all continue to give those affected the time and space to grieve, recover mementos with the confidence that they can do so privately and with their personal circle of support, inviting in what help they want, when they want it. While everyone would like to go look at the scene, please fight that urge.
I went to the grocery store yesterday. I admit to often lowering my head and avoiding eye contact during this busy season just to get in and out quickly like many of us do. Something made me look up. What I saw were locals searching the faces of others. When our eyes and expressions revealed our shared experience, a nod, a smile and a hug passed between us. Way to go, Grand County and Moab!
Kris Hurlburt has an M.S. in counseling psychology and works with Grand County Emergency Management.
“Even while the fire was still sending flames and smoke upward, this amazing community moved just as fast.”