Like everything else in 2020, this year’s forest fires in Northern California were unusual. The elderly say they’ve never seen anything like it. With the exception of 2019, which remains a terrible year, forest fires break more and more records every year. This recurring injury is paying off.

This year’s fires are a constellation of stressors, including the new coronavirus pandemic. Evacuation vehicles used to stop in the large buildings of the State Complex, this year this was impossible. Napa and Sonoma counties had to find safe places for the 70,000 evacuees and it was a slow process.

The population also suffers economically, as jobs and wages are lost due to the closure and disappearance of tourism. Schools are closed, making it difficult, if not impossible, for parents to work.

2020 has been such a wonderful year, says Mary-Frances Walsh, CEO of Sonoma County at NAMI. People call the NAMI hotline, a telephone service where employees can listen in and forward calls to psychosocial services for reasons beyond the reach of a fire. When you talk to people, there’s a lot more going on, she says. People are tired and have been through a lot.

Despite everything that has been written about the need for economic recovery in the wine region of Northern California, the inhabitants urgently need a return to mental health as soon as possible. The future of a region depends on the resilience of its population.

Smoky sky above a crystal vineyard / Photo courtesy of Haus Smoky sky above a crystal vineyard / Photo courtesy of Haus

In August, lightning struck the Napa Valley and destroyed 360,000 hectares of land, killing five people. The glass fire in September, the most devastating in American history, destroyed 1,235 buildings, including 300 houses, and damaged at least 26 vineyards and cellars. A total of 9,485 fires affected 4,058,314 acres this year, with an estimated cost of $1,388 billion to extinguish them.

Long-term stocks of wine were lost in the burnt-out buildings. The vines do not burn, in some cases they can even cause fire lines to collapse. But the smoke from the surrounding fires penetrates the grapes and makes them unusable for the phenomenon known as smoke colour. Although freshly harvested grapes have a good taste and smell, a year in the barrel can make the wine taste like an ashtray.

Contrary to previous years, the 2020 fires took place before the harvest, not after. Many wineries have cancelled their wines this year and up to 80% of Cabernet Sauvignon grapes in the Napa Valley have been lost due to smoke damage. Cabernet is responsible for 60% of Napa’s $34 billion wine harvest.

Supporting the wine industry is an entire ecosystem that includes farmers, farm workers, winemakers, restaurateurs, waiters, cooks and hotel workers – people who live and work in an increasingly unstable environment. The Latin community represents more than a third of the population of Napa County. Many of them work in vineyards or in the hospitality industry, which has been severely affected by both coronaviruses and forest fires. Hotels and restaurants that were active before the fires lost business because the smoke filled the area. The record heat shortened many working days in the vineyards and reduced wages.

UpValley Awareness Station, LISTOS initiative / Photo courtesy of UpValley Family CentersUpValley Awareness Station, LISTOS initiative / Photo courtesy of UpValley Family CentersUpValley Awareness Station, LISTOS initiative / Photo courtesy of UpValley Family CentersUpValley Awareness Station, LISTOS initiative / Photo courtesy of UpValley Family Centers

In the meantime, some winegrowers have been given permission to work in areas cleared by forest fires. During the interception it was reported that in a desperate struggle to harvest the grapes before they were too contaminated to be sold, workers were harvesting under dangerous conditions, sometimes without proper masks. To date, we have no official figures on the number of workers sent to evacuation areas, if any.

Like many others, many workers in a wine country live off their wages in a region where real estate is surprisingly expensive. A double disaster of coronavirus and forest fires caused a domino effect, said Patricia Galindo, customer service coordinator of La Luz, a family service organization serving the Latin American community in the Sonoma Valley. It’s hard enough to earn rent with a salary under better conditions, and if you’re behind on rent or utilities, you’ll probably have to pay extra. Most families do not have insurance such as insurance policies, let alone savings. Many of them are undocumented and therefore do not have access to unemployment and other state social security systems.

We know a lot about fighting forest fires, said Jenny Okon, executive director of UpValley Family Centers, a community support organization. But we’ve never had to deal with the Covida pandemic, and it’s a complete game-changer in terms of how we treat people and how we help them.

Ocon is part of a working group that ensures that agricultural workers receive both training and personal protective equipment from their employers. They also raise awareness so that people know that they are helping to pay the rent.

Julie Spencer Lunch and Learn for Seniors in UpValley Family Centres / Photo : Julie Spencer

I’m worried, not about what’s going to happen in the future, but about what I’m going to do next month, Mr. Galindo said. The aim of Centre La Luz is to provide housing for people, so it also provides financial support for needs such as renting a house.

Window and Galindo state that employees and their families are in survival mode and are currently focusing on their most basic needs. Both organizations offer psychiatric help or can help connect people who offer psychiatric help, but so far there has been little response to this proposal. There is no doubt that they are under enormous stress, Window says, but they are not yet ready to deal with the psychological and emotional consequences. In general, our experience is that people first fall and then come back when their immediate needs are met.

According to Galindo, therapy is not common in Latin culture, but people experience trauma by talking about their problems with someone they trust. And that’s where La Luz comes in, she says. The organisation has been in existence for 35 years and has supported several generations.

When people come to them for financial help, they also talk about their problems. We’re going to be therapists, Mr. Galindo said. Why is that? Because they want to be able to trust someone who understands their situation.

The window agrees that the stigma associated with psychiatric services may be a sign, but it’s more complicated. Counselling is priceless, although free and cheap services are available. Another challenge is to offer therapists who speak fluent Spanish. She found that the Latin American community currently has sufficient resources for mental health care, but that the real challenge is to provide mental health care in the longer term.

The NAMI district of Sonoma is working on the expansion of the Spanish speaking service capacity and has recently hired a Spanish speaking employee to work on a hotline.

There’s a real shortage of mentally ill people who speak Spanish, Walsh said. It’s a huge need, but it’s definitely what we’re working on.

NAMI is currently training its staff to complete the eight-week Family-to-Family course, the first bilingual training for people with different types of mental illness.

For residents with a relatively high financial security, fires are a different kind of emotional stress. Woody Hambrecht and Helena Price Hambrecht live in a house that has belonged to the family for over a century. Wooden cellars on a plot that normally produces 240 tonnes of grapes. They lost their entire harvest this year because of smoke damage.

Fortunately, the Hambrechts have an aperitif trade, House, which has not suffered any damage, and their harvest insurance will cover about half of the company’s annual income. With a few cuts, including Woody’s salary in 2021, that’s enough to keep the property.

Still, woody says it’s terrible. It’s not that. In view of the increase in premiums, it is estimated that by 2018 25% of Californian winegrowers will not have harvest insurance, putting those who depend entirely on income from their vineyards in a precarious situation. Rehabilitation in Sonoma County is becoming increasingly expensive.

The disquieting feelings of the farmers often stem from a feeling of powerlessness towards a new obsessive question: Now we’re gonna lose every year?

Driving in harmony with nature is part of agricultural culture. However, the Hambrechts note that younger generations of farmers are much more willing than older generations to make use of mental health care, and this concerns the latter.

It’s probably a double-edged sword because these farmers are so resilient and they can work these large tracts of land with minimal help, Woody said. But this spirit of self-confidence has a downside. I think a lot of people face the fear of their own initiative and deal with it.

Along with unpredictability, fires are an existential threat. It’s really hard to explain, Woody says, but if you’ve worked your whole life on one piece of land, and in many cases for several generations, it only takes a day to destroy it. It’s more than the loss of property; I think it’s also a loss of purpose. And this loss of purpose can have more emotional consequences than material loss.

But there is hope for mental and emotional stability in the region. Over the past three years, the districts of Napa and Sonoma have learned to raise the alarm and inform residents about evictions with clearer preparation instructions. Fires can always be unpredictable, but safety measures are not limited to that.

La Luz pour la cuisine répond au Covid-19 Dîner de famille / Foto de courtoisie La Luz La Luz pour la cuisine répond au Covid-19 Dîner de famille / Foto de courtoisie La Luz

In the meantime, after the fires of 2017, therapists will be trained in the so-called psychological recovery skills (PRS). The North Sonoma Health Foundation has established the Wildfire Mental Health Collaborative, which provides a comprehensive response to natural disasters in the field of mental health. They worked with the patient monitoring platform Overlap to create the Sonoma Rises 2018, a bilingual proposal for the assessment of mental health and resources (although unfortunately its funding was not renewed). In Sonoma District we also organised services for people affected by the fires. Free yoga classes, group and individual consultations were offered. Reconstruction teams such as Coffey Strong’s have been set up.

At the time of writing, Sonoma County seems to have taken measure O by raising the sales tax by a quarter of a percent to raise $25 million over 10 years to fund mental health and homeless services.

I think people just recognize that mental health is the priority in this province right now, Walsh said.

Meanwhile, the Hambrechts and their neighbours are trying to change the story of the feeling of powerlessness in the face of the vagaries of the forest fires by experimenting with so-called controlled combustion. These are very old forest management practices that have been used for centuries by indigenous peoples in America and Australia.

Woody, together with his neighbours and state and local firefighters, will burn the 30-acre forest on his property. It’s a way for us to take control somehow, Woody said. This will reduce the risk of uncontrolled forest fires in the future. But above all, it gives us the feeling that we can really do something. Because that feeling of inevitability is truly destructive.

Controlled incineration also shows how the Community has together achieved a common goal. During an emergency, Woody says, his neighbor Fred Peterson, a former fire chief and long-time winemaker at the family winery, gathered his buddies and walked around the neighborhood in a large water tank with equipment and sprayed all the houses to protect them from the fire.

On the long dirt road on which the Hambrechts live, everyone knows each other. But they came together in a way they’d never known before. And it’s really something special, Woody said. I think there is a sense of community that really comes back, and that is probably the kind of mental health solution that is most natural to people and that actually has real value.

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