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Climate Anxiety Takes a Toll as Flagstaff Residents Brace for a Fiery Future

U.S. Forest Service, Coconino National Forest

More than five and a half million acres have burned in the U.S. this year. Wildfires have grown larger and more intense over the last few decades, in part because of the warmer temperatures brought on by global climate change. Residents in forest cities like Flagstaff increasingly have to prepare for evacuations, smoky days, and post-fire floods. KNAU’s Melissa Sevigny reports, all that takes a toll on mental health.

In Flagstaff, everyone has a fire story, including Tzeidle Wasserman.

“The second summer that I lived here was the Schultz Fire,” she remembers. “And I can remember coming home and watching those helicopters everyday dip out of the tanks and go fight the fire, and watching the smoke.”

Credit Ryan Heinsius
The Museum Fire burning at night in the Dry Lake Hills above Flagstaff.

Wasserman is an ecologist who studies wildfire in Flagstaff and she knows it’s a natural process. But that doesn’t mean it’s easy to live with. More than once wildfires have burned near her home. “I don’t like to embrace the apocalyptic: “all the trees are going to be gone in fifty years”… But yeah, we are going to see some changes, whether in our lifetime or our children’s lifetime is yet to be seen,” she says.

Credit Melissa Sevigny
Two years later, the Museum Fire scar is filled with standing dead trees. The landscape is vulnerable to flooding.

Those changes likely include growing numbers of buildings destroyed by fire. Fire seasons in the West are three months longer than they were prior to the 1980s.

When the Rafael Fire burned south of Flagstaff earlier this summer, Cat Edgeley was among the people told to prepare to evacuate. She took videos of her things for the insurance company, “and I was really taken aback by how emotional I was.” Edgeley is a social scientist who studies the emotions that arise during wildfires. “With the ash falling down over the house, it was very surreal, and I— because I research this all the time, I think I didn’t expect it to affect me as much as it did.”

She’s conducted surveys of Flagstaff residents to see how people recover after a fire. She says it’s easy to measure recovery by rebuilt houses or repaired roads. “It’s a lot harder to measure how many people are still feeling down about it. How many people are still worried or scared, six months, a year, ten years later? And what does that to their connection to a place? Do they still want to live there, do they still feel safe?”

Those are kinds of questions that preoccupy local therapist Collin Hagood. He says fires and other climate disasters can worsen depression, anxiety, and stress. “I think a big of the healing process is just becoming more open about how we feel affected by these disasters, or even just the threat of them.”

One response he sees is a form of sadness called solastalgia. He explains, “Solastalgia has to do with a sense that you’re losing your home even though you haven’t left it. It’s related to the difficulties that we might encounter when we run into the Museum Fire scar,” or see a place that’s been destroyed by floods.

Credit Melissa Sevigny
Barricades in the Paradise neighborhood in Flagstaff include warning signs about the flood danger because of the Museum Fire scar uphill.

This monsoon season, rain has pummeled the Museum Fire scar and sent flash floods tearing through the streets of communities in east Flagstaff. Water overtopped barricades and swept away cars. Joel and Teki Sankey’s backyard is now buried in mud and debris. Teki points to the wall of sandbags that kept the house dry. It’s three feet deep in places, and even blocks the driveway.

Credit Melissa Sevigny
Teki and Joel Sankey stand in a maze of sandbags and barricades behind their house, which was damaged by recent floods.

“During the rainy days we close this, and every morning we get up and open the floodgates, literally, drive out and then put the sandbags back together,” Teki explains, laughing.

“ We’ve gotten surprisingly quick at it!” Joel adds.

The Sankeys say this is their new reality. They know climate change means more fires and more floods. But, Joel says, “it’s the stark reality when it’s occurring and threatening literally your own backyard, it makes it that much more real.”

But they don’t have plans to move.  

“We love our house, we love the neighborhood. We’re not blind to the risks of living right up against the forest,” Joel explains. Teki adds: “But we have definitely started really thinking hard about: what is the long-term solution to this?”

Mental health experts say one answer to climate anxiety is to form strong connections with family, friends, and the natural world. For the Sankeys, the fire and floods brought them closer to neighbors they’d never met before. They’re grateful for a community that’s grown stronger in the face of disaster.


Melissa joined KNAU's team in 2015 to report on science, health, and the environment. Her work has appeared nationally on NPR and been featured on Science Friday. She grew up in Tucson, Arizona, where she fell in love with the ecology and geology of the Sonoran desert.
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