Eco-Anxiety Is Real And Compounded Each Year I Live In Fire Evacuation Zones
California is on fire. As I write this, nearly 100,000 acres have burned, or are currently burning in the last couple weeks alone. Within a 25 mile radius of my home in Los Angeles, three major fires are burning. My Nuyorican mom is frantic. The devastation caused to families who lost their homes is undeniably tragic. After California lost a historic 19,000 homes to wildfires last year, Gov. Newsom signed a $21 billion fund into law to help address the rising costs of wildfires on Californias.
Let me tell you that the mental health costs are immeasurable. I was evacuated from my home for 11 days last year. Though I was fortunate enough to return home to a house still standing, my mental health deteriorated from there. As I write this, a year later, I am four days into a voluntary evacuation order due to the Getty fire, and there’s a new word floating around: eco-anxiety.
Experts now believe that eco-anxiety may affect Americans more than the actual wildfires and hurricanes that break records year after year.
In 2017, a report on climate change issued by the American Psychological Association focused on the trauma caused by acute extreme weather events. It explicitly determined that people living in risk-prone areas, indigenous communities, communities of color, and other populations would be especially vulnerable to the mental health effects of climate change. “Communities are also less resilient when they are weakened by social stressors, such as racism, economic inequality, and environmental injustices,” the report concludes. Documentary After Maria illustrates how climate change has permanently altered the lives of Puerto Ricans whose homes were destroyed. Those that remained on the island have endured PTSD triggers in the following hurricane seasons that have otherwise just been part of normal life.
I am a woman with trauma. I am a lesbian with trauma. I am a race dysphoric Arab-Latina with trauma. It’s taken all the courage I have to admit that, last fire season, I was less resilient to the drama of a fire evacuation.
The power went out, and we had no cell signal to alert us to our mandatory evacuation orders.
When my girlfriend and I woke up that morning, it smelled like smoke, and the power was out. I decided to hike the dogs up to a higher point where we typically have cell service. It was there I saw the fire and learned that our electricity company had shut off power to prevent a fire like the one that sparked the Getty fire, which was as simple an event as a tree limb falling on a power line. We went home and took a *bath.* Eventually, a neighbor alerted us to the evacuation orders. I packed clothes for a couple of days, medication, passports, and the yucca.
This is all new to me because I grew up in Florida.
I didn’t know “fire season” was a thing until I moved to Topanga, nestled in the Santa Monica mountains. I come from Miami, Florida so I am familiar with hurricanes and grew up loving the then-moderate hurricane seasons. The weatherman would tell us which days we’d have off school, and as a kid with no responsibilities, it was all a little bit thrilling to hear the lightning crack above us, and be huddled as a family in a closet having playing school or misa.
As we sped down the canyon highway, we soberly slowed down to pass a car that had flipped over onto its hood, blocking the lane.
Everything after the evacuation was objectively delightful. I was privileged enough to stay with my girlfriend’s family, who lived nearby, and they even had cable. We watched the news 24/7 looking for updates on our home. The Paradise fire became the deadliest and most destructive fire in California history. It killed 85 people who couldn’t escape in time. It was traveling at the rate of an entire football field per second. Soon, the thought that we were taking a bath, and eating mierda for hours before a frantic neighbor told us we were put on mandatory evacuation orders three hours prior, felt terrifying.
A week later, we returned to our home. The worst thing that happened was our food spoiled. We were incredibly lucky. However, that’s when my anxiety and stress levels skyrocketed. For a week straight, I would panic when my girlfriend came home late, even if it was just by ten minutes. I thought she got into a terrible car wreck. I didn’t want to leave the dogs at home for fear that an unstoppable fire would overtake them. Meanwhile, my girlfriend was emotionally unaffected. I felt incredibly alone and fell into a severe depression.
In just a couple of hours, our evacuation orders are expected to lift.
I eventually obtained health insurance and got therapy for my anxiety, which has significantly dissipated. The truth is, when I first learned about climate change in my high school’s Environmental Science magnet program, I experienced severe anxiety. I learned I would live to see my south Florida childhood home become part of the ocean floor. I begged my parents to move us more inland, to Okeechobee at least. “Popps, that’s going to be ocean-front property some day. Please.”
I’ve learned that doing the step work to fight climate change and be fire prepared eases my eco-anxiety.
I later learned that animal agriculture is the single greatest contributor to climate change, and went vegan. I vote for policies that protect our earth, and my life on it. This year, I know where to look for emergency alerts. Since we were put on evacuation orders, my car has been packed, facing out the driveway. We take turns staying home with the dog to prevent the worst from happening. I’m learning to accept the things I cannot change, and pray for courage to change the things I can. Once every emergency preparedness task is crossed off my list, there’s nothing I can do. The fires are closer to my girlfriend’s family’s house, and at this point in my financial life, we can’t afford to evacuate and stay in a hotel for peace of mind. This is it. This is how I’m learning to cope with eco-anxiety while surrounded by fire.
Most of the year, it feels like a privilege to look out my window and see lush, green trees, home to red-headed woodpeckers, glowing, yellow-eyed owls, and the neighborhood hawk. The few times over the years that we’ve seen bobcats and mountain lions, these mountains feel so wild, I remember just how wild and dangerous it is for all of us to live here.