The sky clouded in smoke, home evacuation alerts, dreading a forecast of lightning—this is what an Okanagan summer has evolved into.
Since the Okanagan Mountain Park Fire in 2003, forest fires have become predictable mainstays across the Okanagan Valley every summer, changing the low-key, vacation-town attitude tourists flock here for to one of heightened alert and stress.
Shelagh Turner, Kelowna branch executive director of the Canadian Mental Association, said forest fires becoming a fact of life in the Okanagan can take its toll on local residents.
“You see a lot of talk about that on social media,” Turner said.
“The day after the (Goode’s Creek) Okanagan Mountain fire started, people were already talking about what happened in 2003, and that for some people brings back some horrible memories they don’t want to relive again.”
Turner said an unintended consequence of being proactive and alert to fire season is it becomes mentally waring.
“We need to think about coping mechanisms that help alleviate some of that stress,” she said.
Turner points out the CMHA website has a tipsheet for families and individuals coping with the stress of a natural disaster emergency, along with a ‘TalkInTough Times’ call service at 1-877-427-4884.
Amanda Swoboda, CMHA community education co-ordinator, says the anticipatory stress that comes with “here we go again” at the sight of smoke can chip away at our mental well-being.
“It can be a cumulative thing as we’ve just come off floods this spring and the flooding and fires of last year,” Swoboda said.
“My husband and I live downtown so we feel safe, but we notice just the impact of the smoke can have an impact on your mood. Just looking forward to summers in the Okanagan now, it brings with it that sense of realization this is what it’s going to be like when the fires and smoke arrive.
“It can sometimes feel very unrelenting.”
Swoboda recommends that one key to to help reduce the mental health blues is to maintain your regular daily life routine.
“Your time can be very challenged in a fire situation where the basics such as getting a proper amount of sleep or eating properly can be compromised. Retaining some normalcy in or leading up to a possible crisis can help reduce the level of stress,” she said.
Given that crisis in forest fire season often equates to evacuating your home, Swoboda suggests also being prepared to flee for safety at a moment’s notice.
“Plan ahead of time. Think about your pets, personal papers, photos that are important to you. Dealing with all that in the moment is very hard to do because you often don’t often have much time to gather your things and leave,” she said.
Swoboda adds that social connections, talking to friends and neighbours, reaching out to assist others who are vulnerable or isolated, can help off-set your own sense of worry and concern.
“It’s normal to feel stressed and worried, and it can be traumatic if a fire directly has an impact on you. But if you start to notice those feelings start to extend week after week, feeling anxious and fearful, having trouble sleeping or eating properly, hard to focus on taking care of yourself or others, than you might need to reach out for help and support,” she said.
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