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Fire Season Has Arizonans On Edge

Second Chance Center for Animals
Staff and volunteers at Second Chance Center for Animals in Flagstaff evacuate hundreds of homeless animals during the Schultz Fire

This is the time of year when a puff of smoke on the horizon can raise the hair on the back of your neck. Is it a prescribed burn? Or is it the makings of the state's next massive wildfire? Arizona has experienced two of the largest forest fires in recorded state history in the last decade. And, as Arizona Public Radio's Gillian Ferris Kohl reports, the onset of fire season has a lot of Arizonans on edge.

Flagstaff resident Lisa Skinner grew up in a household of firefighters and has been ready to evacuate her whole life.

"From when I was a little girl it started with, what are my plans? What am I going to bring? And I was going to get my blanket and put my stuffed animals and all my important toys in there and then break the window and get out of the house that way. I lived on the first story."

She's still ready. She has to be. Skinner, along with her husband, their two year old son, a dog and a cat, lives in a steep, heavily wooded area about a quarter mile from the national forest boundary. Several times over the last few years, wildfires have threatened her neighborhood.

"During the Brinns fire in 2006, when it was coming up over the rim from Sedona, there was a lot of worry it would cross the road and come up the canyon toward Kachina Village, our neighborhood. And our neighbors were packing everything in their boat, all their stuff in their boat. And we saw them leave."

Wildfires are to Arizonans what the San Andreas Fault and tsunami zones are to Californians: they are regionally specific natural threats. And they can cause a lot of anxiety for some people, especially those who've experienced previous trauma.

"When there's a major trauma to the brain - and this is very biological - your brain actually changes. I call it the Luge Chutte."

Sara Gibson is a psychiatrist at the Northern Arizona Regional Behavioral Health Authority in Flagstaff. She counseled dozens of evacuees during last year's Wallow Fire and the Rodeo-Chedeski Fire which broke out ten years ago next month.

"You have a trauma, your brain responds to that. And the next time you're traumatized, you slide right down that Luge Chutte and back into the trauma again."

Gibson says some of those patients experienced physical symptoms of anxiety including headaches, stomach problems and sleep disturbance. Some relapsed into drug use. Some got into fights. Gibson says, aside from their own safety and that of their family, most evacuees had one very specific concern.

"The biggest trauma was pets. What do we do with our pets?"

Evacuating one dog or cat can cause enough stress. But, imagine having to evacuate hundreds of animals all at once when the fire is burning right across the street.

"To say that it was stressful would be understating the case."

That's Eric Walden, development director at Second Chance Center for Animals in Flagstaff. During the Schultz Fire two years ago, Walden, his staff and volunteers, had less than two hours to evacuate all their animals, plus those at the Coconino County Humane Association and those belonging to fire evacuees.

"People who work with animals are passionate about animals to begin with. Now, add in the threat of a fire and the threat of loss of life. I would say emotions were running high."

And Walden says they have been ever since.

"I sit there saying, does that look like smoke to you, over by the burn area? And then we're going uh oh, is it an illusion? It's just the sun! Should we call Summit Fire? So, does the stress ever go away? For me, no. That doesn't mean I'm leading a burdened life. But I have to acknowledge that, yeah, when it's fire season, the stress level goes up."

Two weeks ago, northern Arizona's first big forest fire of the season started near the tiny town of Crown King. More than 300 people were - and remain - evacuated. And it's only May.

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