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Saturday, December 15 , 2018, 3:25 pm | Fair 64º


Counselors Replace Firefighters on the Front Lines in Wake of Tea Fire

The Red Cross and Jewish Family Service offer free counseling to residents reeling from the effects of loss.

As smoke from the Tea Fire clears and the glare of the media spotlight dims, many victims facing sudden homelessness may find that the sting of loss has barely begun.

And it could be awhile before it goes away.

When the Tea Fire started its devastating march that destroyed 210 homes in the foothills of Santa Barbara and Montecito, the front line of defense was made up of firefighters. Now it includes counselors.

Underscoring the importance of psychological therapy at a time like this, the American Red Cross-Santa Barbara Chapter includes, in every small team of volunteers dispatched throughout the burn area, not only people to hand out food and water, but also a mental-health provider to talk with victims.

Also, the Jewish Family Service of Greater Santa Barbara has been offering crisis counseling at no cost for anyone affected by the fire. The center, at 524 Chapala St., will host an informal meeting from 1 p.m. to 2:30 p.m. Thursday for residents to talk about what happened.

Working through the Red Cross, Roberta Ainciart, a retired marriage-and-family therapist and licensed clinical social worker, has volunteered to train mental-health professionals with no experience in trauma therapy to work with Tea Fire victims. On Monday, she said, counselors out in the field were able to talk with about 100 people.

Among victims, she said, the range of reaction has been wide.

“From making jokes — being light because it hasn’t quite hit yet — to sobbing and feeling that they can’t stop crying,” she said.

At some point, victims are apt to begin experiencing alternating waves of exhaustion, worry, frustration and anger, she said. Therapists also said it is common for those affected to feel scattered, irritable and argumentative. Some may fall back on unhealthy coping mechanisms, such as substance abuse, or find themselves lapsing into traits they exhibit under extreme stress, such as becoming hyper-organized or controlling.

“People are physically drained, mentally drained and might have aches and pains,” Ainciart said. “Sometimes with the emotional exhaustion, the body starts to ache.”

Ainciart said the key thing for people to realize is that all of that is normal.

“These are not crazy people, or anything other than people going through stress,” she said.

Ainciart added that the symptoms could be even worse for anyone who had lost their home once before.

“This will bring up all the old stuff plus the new. It will sort of multiply,” she said. “Like people going through chemo (for the second time), they know what to expect, and it’s awful. It’s not better.”

To staunch the anxiety, therapists advise people to take care of themselves.

“People will go without eating,” Kristine Schwarz of Santa Barbara Psychotherapy said. “They will begin to get rundown, they will get sick. With that level of stress, to not care of their health can have a snowball effect, with anxiety increasing or depression increasing.”

Schwarz said the Red Cross is an excellent place to acquire the basics: food, clothing, shelter and even toys for children.

She also advises people to increase the dosage of whatever healthful coping mechanism works best for them. For someone in a 12-step program for alcohol abuse, that could mean attending extra meetings. Others may like to meditate, go to the gym or do yoga.

People are also advised to stay in touch with their support networks.

“Stay connected with family and friends. Don’t isolate,” Ainciart said.

People should not be afraid — or too proud — to ask for help if they need it. They are also encouraged to talk to people about their loss.

Elizabeth Wolfson, the director of Jewish Family Service of Greater Santa Barbara, said it is important for people to look on the bright side.

“I’m alive, my family is alive — that’s the most important thing,” said Wolfson, a licensed clinical social worker with a doctorate in social work.

Wolfson said people should avoid letting the tragedy monopolize their attention. As much as possible, it’s good to get back to one’s routine, she said.

“It’s also OK to be nice to yourself,” she added, suggesting a trip to a spa, for example.

At the same time, she said, victims need to know that their troubles are valid.

“It is a big deal,” she said.

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