Wildfires

Learn about who is most at risk for emotional distress from wildfires and where to find disaster-related resources.

Wildfires are usually triggered by lightning or accidents and often go unnoticed at first. They can spread quickly and are especially destructive if they occur near forests, rural areas, remote mountain sites, and other woodland settings where people live. While not reported as often as floods or tornadoes and severe storms, they, too, can cause emotional distress in people living in affected areas.

In 2013, more than 47,500 wildfires were reported in the United States. They destroyed thousands of structures, including about 1,100 homes, and burned more than 4 million acres of land.

Feelings such as overwhelming anxiety, constant worrying, trouble sleeping, and other depression-like symptoms are common responses before, during, and after wildfires. Other signs of emotional distress related to wildfires include:

  • Having thoughts, memories, or nightmares related to the wildfire that you can’t seem to get out of your head
  • Worrying a lot of the time; feeling guilty but not sure why
  • Excessive absences from work or school

These are just a few warning signs of disaster-related distress. Learn more about warning signs and risk factors for emotional distress related to wildfires and other disasters.

Where Can I Get Help?

If you or someone you know shows any of these symptoms for two weeks or more, whether you know they are in relation to a wildfire or if it is unclear how they started ... Talk with us. You are not alone! Call the Disaster Distress Helpline at 1-800-985-5990 or text TalkWithUs to 66746 for support and counseling. The Disaster Distress Helpline is a national hotline that provides 24/7, year-round crisis counseling for people who are experiencing emotional distress related to any natural or human-caused disaster.

This toll-free, multilingual, and confidential crisis support service is available to all residents in the United States and its territories. Spanish-speakers should text Hablanos to 66746. English speakers in U.S. territories text TalkWithUs to 1-212-461-4635. Calls and texts are answered by trained, caring counselors from crisis call centers located throughout the United States.

Standard text and data message rates will apply when texting from mobile phones. International text and data rates may apply from within U.S. territories and free association nations.

Who is at Risk for Emotional Distress?

People living in areas where wildfires often occur, particularly in communities in Arizona, California, Colorado, Utah, and other states, may be vulnerable to emotional distress. People who have struggled to recover from experiences with past wildfires also may experience distress. Other people at risk for emotional distress due to wildfires include:

  • Children and teens. After a wildfire, young people may worry that another one will happen again, especially if they witnessed the fire and the loss of their home. Some children may become withdrawn, while others may become agitated and irritable and display outbursts of anger.
  • Older adults. Older adults are more likely to need social support to reduce the effects of stress and move forward on the path of recovery. They also may have limited physical mobility and lack independence.
  • First responders and recovery workers. These individuals may experience prolonged separation from loved ones (depending on the severity of the wildfire) and show signs of mental fatigue.

Once warnings and evacuation orders are issued, the risk for emotional distress becomes greater:

  • You or your loved ones may feel unprepared, isolated, overwhelmed, or confused. Uncertainty about where to go during a wildfire, how to keep you and your loved ones safe, how to care for your pets, or whether you will be able to continue taking any medications can cause emotional distress.
  • You may lose contact with a loved one in an impacted area.
  • If you are relocated or lost your house to a wildfire, being in an unfamiliar environment can be difficult, especially for people with limited physical mobility, economic means, or knowledge of the English language.

Returning to a home, business, school, or place of worship impacted by a wildfire may cause additional distress, especially if there is structural damage. A temporary or permanent loss of employment may also occur.

Remember, too, that the anniversary of a disaster or tragic event can renew feelings of fear, anxiety, and sadness in disaster survivors. Certain sounds such as sirens can also trigger emotional distress. These and other environmental sensations can take people right back to the event, or cause them to fear that it’s about to happen again. These “trigger events” can happen at any time.

People can experience a wide range of emotions before and after a disaster or traumatic event. There’s no right or wrong way to feel. However, it’s important to find healthy ways to cope when these events happen. Learn about coping tips for dealing with wildfires and other types of disasters.

Additional Resources for Wildfires

The SAMHSA Disaster Technical Assistance Center (DTAC) also helps states, territories, tribes, and local entities deliver an effective mental health and substance abuse (behavioral health) response to wildfires and other natural disasters. Learn more about these issues and find more disaster-related resources at Disaster Preparedness, Response, and Recovery.

Last Updated: 09/24/2015