Wildfire and resilience

09/02/2020

As I sit down to write this, the evacuation warning that we in Bolinas have been under for the past 12 days has been lifted. The Woodward Fire continues to burn close to the Silver Hills neighborhood, as little as a quarter-mile from structures. I simultaneously breathe a sigh of relief and send more prayers for those still at risk.

Here in our beloved community, we have been given the opportunity to cultivate and practice resilience. At present, our challenge is wildfire layered upon pandemic. In a not-too distant future, there will undoubtedly be more existential gantlets to navigate. 

What can we glean from these experiences, and from the literature on resilience? What does it mean to be prepared for an uncertain and tumultuous future? Which attributes, skills, networks and mindsets will yield the strength and flexibility needed to handle whatever comes our way?

Resilience, the capacity to recover from difficulties, can be applied to many realms of inquiry and practice. It can, for example, refer to our personal capacity to navigate crises, a community’s capacity to prepare, endure and recover from a disaster, or our society’s ability to transcend the limiting systemic structures it inherited and evolve into something stronger and healthier. 

As a 42-year-old community-based primary care physician, a mother of two young children and an ardent lover of the earth and all its inhabitants, I cultivate and champion resilience whenever I can. In my lifetime, climate change-driven catastrophic wildfire in California will intensify, as will drought and every other type of weather emergency. The vulnerabilities of systems—financial, health care, transportation and more—predicated on the cheap availability of fossil fuels will increasingly be laid bare. Self-care and the prevention of illness will be crucial for each of us, and collective resilience will be served by our physical, mental and spiritual wellbeing. 

My children know at their tender age the importance of preparedness, interdependence and self-reliance. They are watching, as children do, to see how I handle each challenge. What frame do I keep the challenge within? What language do I use? Do I catastrophize? Do I reach out for help, and offer support when I can? I am keenly aware that their lifetimes will likely present even more opportunities to navigate challenge than mine, so teaching these skills is essential.

The following are helpful suggestions from studies on how to be resilient.

Keep things in perspective, recognizing that which is most important. 

It was such a luxury to have time to consider what few material possessions I would pack into my car, along with my children, my kitty and my bunny, and their supplies, and then to visit familiar objects that could not be brought and let them go. I recognize the gulf of experience between imagining losing all one’s possessions and actually doing so, and know I cannot truly imagine what that is like. It did, however, feel healthy to imagine this loss, and to know I would be okay despite it.

Mindfully notice your thought patterns with curiosity and the spirit of self-discovery. 

Is your capacity to respond to a situation diminished by distracting thoughts of, say, how terrible it is that your children are unable to return to in-person school and will instead be stuck in front of a screen? (A hypothetical example.) Or are you able to notice “glass half empty” thinking and instead feel gratitude for the opportunities that are arising, the roof over your head, and your health? This is a skillset we each can cultivate. It takes practice. Noticing our thoughts is the first step.

Be aware of your feelings and learn to regulate your emotions. 

It is essential that we feel our feelings and not suppress them. Equally important is cultivating coping skills so that our emotional state doesn’t paralyze us. Remember to take deep breaths throughout the day, which helps ground and calm us through the activation of our parasympathetic nervous system.

Be loving and kind with yourself. 

Take good care of yourself, especially in times of stress. Nourishing food, adequate sleep, regular movement and gentle, appreciative self-talk all make a difference in how resilient you are. Celebrate your strengths, and don’t be hard on weaknesses. Practice self-love.

Be prepared. 

Last year, during the power outages and Kincade Fire in Sonoma County, my children and I put together our go bag. Two weeks ago, the morning after the lightning storm and during the power outage, we pulled out the backpack, made sure we knew how to use the radio and solar recharging panel, and put a pair of socks and underwear for each of us inside. The following day, when we received the evacuation warning, it was so grounding to know we had our backpack with emergency essentials ready to go. 

Now that we’ve had the chance to prepare to evacuate (or actually evacuate), we can each reflect on what we’ve learned. Do we have all our important documents in one place? Do we have a plan for our pets? For ourselves? 

When wildfire smoke creates unsafe air quality, do we have what we need to safely shelter indoors? An air purifier is a wise investment; even a small one allows you to create a clean-air room in your home. This is especially important for those most vulnerable to the effects of smoke: people with heart and lung conditions, children, the elderly and pregnant women. 

In the past week, the air quality has often been unsafe for everyone; if you can smell smoke in the air, it is best to stay indoors. When the tiny particles in the air get into our lungs, they can cross into our bloodstream and create inflammation, increasing the risk of heart attacks, arrhythmias, asthma attacks and more. An ounce of prevention is especially important in the case of wildfire smoke.

Given that we can anticipate exposure to wildfire smoke on a regular basis, it is also wise to become acquainted with herbal medicines that support and soothe irritated lungs and respiratory tissues. Plant thyme and mullein this fall with the rains, and by next fire season you will be able to make soothing tea for yourself and your loved ones. (For more on ways to support respiratory health, check out the recording of the Community Medicine Circle I held on Aug. 26, available at www.naturainstitute.org/integrative-community-medicine-zoom.)

Reach out for help, and help others.

Being of service is one of the most effective ways to be strong in the face of disaster. For many of us, it is much easier to offer our help than it is to ask for it. Look for opportunities to develop this skill; the strength of our community lies in the degree to which we are interconnected. In this time, I’ve so appreciated feeling connected through group texting with those who live in the Commonweal Garden and who are part of the Commonweal community, through reaching out on email lists for prayers for the safety of the garden, and through frequent contact with my family. It has helped to feel the company of others and support in the form of kind words, offers of assistance and prayers for safety. Reaching out is a strength. It, too, takes practice.

Talking about and working on resilience is essential for our times, and it allows for a deeply personal relationship with our family, our community and our society. Preparing ourselves for life on a changing planet will take skillful planning and radical shifts in the way we live our lives. Possibilities open when we are attending first and foremost to our individual resilience and wellbeing.

May our experience with the pandemic and the wildfire sharpen our skills in loving ourselves and one another, and in making our community ever more interconnected and resilient. 

Anna O’Malley, M.D., works with the Petaluma Health Center and directs the Natura Institute for Ecology and Medicine in the Commonweal Garden.