An ongoing journey to process Camp Fire imagery and secondary trauma

I’ve heard dozens of people recount how they escaped the Ridge on the morning of the Camp Fire. I consider each and every account as sacred.

One is of a woman who got separated from her family. Her parents and young daughter were in one vehicle and headed down Clark Road, while she ended up driving solo on Pearson, one of the most harrowing routes out of the foothills that day. She recounted the flames closing in and rolling down the windows to have a connection with other people trapped in the gridlock, all of them strangers, because she was certain she was going to die and was determined not to do so alone.

The terror she felt wasn’t unwarranted—at least one person perished in a car on that winding stretch near Pentz Road.

I steeled myself as best I could while she told that story through sobs—during an interview at the Paradise Starbucks roughly eight months after the fire—and wept over a cup of tea once she left. After the 20 minutes or so it took me to compose myself, I drove down to Chico. Back at the office, I acted like everything was fine—you know, all in a day’s work.

But that wasn’t how I felt. Indeed, like others who’ve been entrenched in this disaster week after week for the past 13 months, including when the foothills were ablaze, I was a bit fraught. Still am, truth be told. There, I said it. It’s been difficult for me to admit—even to myself—my struggle processing the apocalyptic imagery of the early days and the secondary trauma stemming from sustained coverage of the wildfire.

Consider this week’s cover story one way to overcome that hesitation. It’s a collection of essays written by this newspaper’s reporters and editors, as well as former staff writer Ken Smith, who joined us at the emergency shelters and up on the then-burning Ridge at the height of the chaos.

The aforementioned five CN&R journalists are what’s left of the local print scribes who’ve been covering the fire since day one. The Chico Enterprise-Record has seen a mass exodus—nearly full turnover of its reporting staff and editorial managers, including Editor David Little—but this newspaper’s staff has reported on the full length of the disaster. That includes former Chico E-R reporter Andre Byik, who joined the CN&R in May.

We have certain overlapping experiences, but each of us has a unique take to share. I focus on my immediate coping mechanism—stepping outside of my job as a passive observer, mainly by feeding stranded pets and livestock when the Ridge was closed to the general public. I also met one particularly lovely human castaway with whom I’ve stayed in close contact over the past year.

There is no question in my mind that taking on the role as a helper was the right thing to do, nor would I change the amount of time and resources we’ve put into chronicling the ripple effects of the fire. But it’s also left me with, well, some baggage. Addressing these unresolved emotions is part of my ongoing journey. This issue represents one of the steps.