A deadly wildfire traumatized their town. Can nature help them heal?

Photo by Laura Morton for The Washington Post.
Warren, center, and others focus their attention on their surroundings during a guided forest walk.

PARADISE, Calif. – Laura Nelson was dreading this drive. It’s bad enough seeing the mailboxes for houses that no longer exist, the dusty roads lined with the blackened skeletons of trees. But the day is also bone-dry and scorching, the smoke from a distant fire casting a too-familiar pallor over the landscape. Her car bumps over rough patches of pavement – places where the asphalt was melted by vehicles engulfed in flames.

It has been four years since Nelson navigated these roads while fleeing the deadliest and most destructive wildfire in California’s history. And still, every return to Paradise is a reminder that she can never truly go home.

When the Camp Fire incinerated Nelson’s Northern California town, it plunged the community into a mental health crisis. Butte County already had one of the highest rates of childhood trauma in the state, and the sudden loss of home and kinship left residents at high risk of depression. The author of one study on the fire’s aftermath said survivors experienced PTSD at rates on par with veterans of war.

They are not alone: Research increasingly shows that victims of climate change disasters are left with deep psychological wounds – from anxiety after hurricanes to surges in suicide during heat waves – that the nation’s disaster response agencies are ill-prepared to treat.

But in the burned and battered forests near Paradise, a small program run by California State University at Chico is using nature therapy walks to help fire survivors recover.

Drawing on the Japanese practice of “forest bathing,” the community-led walks test a fraught premise: That the site of survivors’ worst memories can become a source of solace. That landscapes still threatened by ever-rising temperatures may hold a remedy to the anguish that climate change will bring.

Although the Chico State walks have not yet been the subject of published, peer-reviewed research, studies show that other forms of forest therapy can lower stress hormones, boost immune systems and ease the symptoms of trauma. And after the dual ordeals of fleeing from fire and navigating an overburdened disaster bureaucracy, participants say the program has helped relieve some of their pain.

“The forest is the therapist,” Nelson says. “Nature knows how to heal.”

That promise is what compelled Nelson to brave a journey through the burn scar today. And as she approaches the shaded entrance to Paradise Lake park – a rare patch of the forest left mostly untouched by fire – she feels her pulse ease ever so slightly. There is something reassuring about the sweet scent of fir needles, the cool breeze of the lake, the chatter of sparrows and squirrels.

Suddenly, Nelson is glad she came. She needs this morning in nature, she realizes, to restore some of what she lost when Paradise burned. She yearns to feel at home again in this wounded, warming world.

– – –

In the woods beside Paradise Lake, Blake Ellis stands amid a circle of survivors, breathing deep. As program manager of the Chico State ecotherapy program, she has guided scores of forest therapy walks. But this one feels especially freighted with meaning.

“We are all brought together today because we have something in common,” Ellis says. “We’ve all been deeply impacted by the Camp Fire.”

There are nods from the dozen people gathered around her: parents and social workers, retirees, a high school student.

Ellis doesn’t know what memories they have brought to this moment. But she knows her job is to create a “safe container” for their pain.

The fire started around dawn on Nov. 8, 2018, when a faulty piece of electrical equipment sent a spark into the parched vegetation of the northern Sierra foothills. After one of the hottest and driest summers the region had yet known, the forest was little more than kindling. Howling winds whipped the blaze into a fast-moving firestorm, overwhelming the ridge-top towns of Concow, Paradise and Magalia.

One participant recalled scouring the rooms of her house, frantically gathering up the items she couldn’t live without. But there was so much she couldn’t carry – beloved heirlooms, photographs of her kids when they were babies, all the accumulated trinkets and mementos that make a house a home.

Another woman had been trapped in nearby Chico, watching the ridge vanish behind a billowing black cloud engulfing the ridge. Her family was somewhere in that smoke, but she couldn’t reach them; police had reversed the flow of traffic on the Skyway, the main road into town.

The streets in Paradise weren’t designed to carry tens of thousands of evacuees at a moment’s notice. LeeAnn Schlaf saw families crammed into sedans, boats pulled by trailers, trucks carrying dogs and cats and chickens.

Some people had abandoned their vehicles and started to walk. She couldn’t understand why.

Then Schlaf turned onto the Skyway and was confronted by a “tunnel of fire.” The memory still makes her shudder. Flames loomed on either side of the road, their heat radiating through the car windows.

Schlaf swore. In the back seat, her dog, Barney, whimpered. She told herself not to look, not to feel. Just focus on the way forward.

In a matter of hours, the Camp Fire consumed more than half of Magalia and almost all of Paradise and Concow. At least 85 people died that day. Hundreds of pets, thousands of homes, uncountable numbers of wild creatures were lost.

“Firenado. Wind inferno. Hell fire,” Nelson wrote in her journal that night. Below, she drew an image of a heart. Then, with a jagged line, she broke it.

Photo by Laura Morton for The Washington Post.
Jon Aull sits down and leans on a tree trunk

– – –

After introductions, Ellis leads the forest therapy group along the lakeside trail to a flat, open stretch of ground. The water is so still it looks like a mirror, perfectly doubling the trees, the clouds, the smoke-streaked sky.

“Find a nice, cozy, comfortable spot,” Ellis says.

One woman stretches out on a blanket. Another man perches on a tree stump, his head in his hands. Nelson grabs a few blackberries from a bush beside the trail, then settles onto a patch of ground with a view of the lake.

Ellis asks them to close their eyes.

“Begin by simply bringing your awareness to your breath. Simply noticing what it’s like to breathe.”

Their sighs are audible in the stillness. They tilt their faces upward, extend their arms as if to catch the air.

Following Ellis’s instructions, they take a mental scan of their bodies, noting the warmth of the sun on their skin, the feel of their feet on the earth. They scoop up handfuls of dirt and inhale its aroma. They listen for sounds of life in the forest: the hum of insects, the rustle of leaves.

Ellis’s goal in this moment is to help the participants feel grounded. To anchor them in a safe and peaceful present, even as they are buffeted by the traumas of their past.

Studies have found that as many as 40 percent of people will develop post-traumatic stress disorder after a disaster, said psychologist Karla Vermeulen, deputy director of the Institute for Disaster Mental Health at the State University of New York at New Paltz.

Survivors often remain hypervigilant, their bodies pulsing with stress hormones long after the threat has subsided. Vivid memories of the disaster can disrupt their sleep and haunt their days. Untreated, their suffering may begin to calcify into something more deep-seated and persistent.

A woman who once loved to cook suffered panic attacks in the kitchen. The blast of hot air when she opened the oven summoned an awful vision of two cats she lost in the fire, burning alive.

A counselor in Chico was overwhelmed by the sudden surge of people in need. Though he hadn’t been physically touched by the fire, the stories he heard evoked “secondhand trauma,” he said – dredging up memories of his own past hardships, broken relationships and financial strains.

Nelson, who lived in Oregon for almost a year after the fire, was wracked with guilt: That she lived when others didn’t. That she fled California when others stayed behind. That she wasn’t able to be the model disaster survivor – hopeful and resilient and strong.

Her first thought each morning was of the fire. Her next thought: “I can’t deal with this. I can’t face this.” There were times when Nelson imagined ending her life, just to escape the memories of what she had endured.

But in the moment when they are most in need of stability and compassion, Vermeulen said, survivors too often find themselves at the mercy of a convoluted bureaucracy that climate change has stretched increasingly thin.

The nation’s disaster response system comprises a confusing hodgepodge of local governments, federal agencies, nonprofits and volunteers, Vermeulen said. An analysis by the nonprofit Urban Institute found months-long funding gaps between the end of emergency relief programs and the start of long-term recovery projects. Survivors can easily fall through the cracks.

The only federal program for addressing disaster mental health – the Federal Emergency Management Agency’s crisis counseling assistance and training program – provided about $30 million to state and local governments for counseling services in 2021. That’s far too little to meet the needs of roughly 135 million Americans living in counties hit by climate disasters last year, experts say.

And accessing the few resources that are available requires survivors to complete reams of paperwork, adding to their stress levels. It may take months or even years to get approved for government assistance, exacerbating peoples’ sense that they will never be safe again.

In Butte County, which suffered from a housing shortage even before the fire, there was little room to shelter the roughly 50,000 people forced from Paradise and the surrounding towns. Refugees slept on friends’ couches, in tents in the Walmart parking lot, in the backs of their cars. They formed long lines at the disaster recovery center in a converted Sears, waiting beneath fluorescent lights for motel vouchers and donated clothes.

Yet few aid groups were offering mental health services, leaving survivors to scrounge for support on their own. Nelson paid out of pocket for therapy in Oregon. Others formed informal counseling groups with neighbors and friends.

Schlaf was relatively fortunate. After her harrowing escape through the “tunnel of fire” on the Skyway, she was accepted into an experimental therapy program that used eye movements to change the way traumatic memories are stored in the brain.

But the program ended after just a few sessions – before she was ready. And Schlaf couldn’t get therapy elsewhere; the few providers in town were completely booked.

Years later, Schlaf still worries something will happen to her house every time she goes on vacation. She compulsively checks that the knobs on her stove are turned off. Though it was her life’s dream to live in the woods, now she is uneasy among too many trees.

“That’s a part of who I am,” she says. “And I feel like I’ve lost that.”

But sitting in the sunshine beside Paradise Lake, Schlaf notices how calm she feels. She looks at the reflection of tall, dark pines quivering on the lake surface. For what feels like the first time in a long time, the forest doesn’t make her fearful.

“Place one hand on your heart and the other hand on the earth,” Ellis says. “Can you feel your heartbeat?”

Schlaf rests a palm against her chest; the other is pressed to the warm, dusty ground.

“I wonder if you can imagine the heartbeat of this place,” Ellis says. “I wonder if you can imagine that our own hearts join in.”

– – –

The moment a person steps foot into nature, their heart rate slows. Their cortisol and adrenaline levels start to drop. The parasympathetic nervous system – the network of nerves that relaxes the body after bouts of stress or danger – switches on.

Trees emit compounds known as phytoncides, which have antimicrobial properties and are thought to boost immune system function. One Japanese study found that a three-day forest-bathing trip significantly increased patients’ levels of cancer-fighting cells.

And in the dappled yellow light of a forest, people become happier, studies show. They are less tired and more creative. Their mood improves, their anxiety eases. Nature therapy has been found to help sexual assault survivors, combat veterans and patients with depression.

But those benefits are only part of what the Chico State forest therapy program aims to provide. Ellis also wants to help participants rebuild their relationships with nature.

Because the pain of enduring a climate disaster is distinct from other kinds of trauma. It’s not just about surviving an acute, deadly peril. It’s about watching, helpless, as the place where you felt safest and happiest becomes threatening and strange.

Research shows that feeling rooted in a community makes survivors less likely to develop long-term mental health problems after a disaster, according to Jyoti Mishra, a neuroscientist at the University of California at San Diego. This makes forest therapy a promising treatment for people affected by climate change.

“It helps rekindle that positive association with the environment,” she said, allowing survivors to heal alongside their neighbors and the landscape they shared.

On every walk she guides, Ellis invites participants to “introduce themselves” to a nonhuman being: a rock, a bird, a tree, the wind.

“There’s no right or wrong way to do this,” she says in response to their puzzled looks.

They scatter out into the woods. Soon, they are smiling as they run their hands along tree trunks, or crouching by the edge of the lake, whispering to the water.

Erin O’Neil, a counselor from Chico who works with homeless teens, wanders along the trail until he comes across a large, blackened tree stump, a relic of some unknown blaze. He feels an odd kinship with this diminished and disintegrating entity. He, too, feels worn down by the fires – both real and metaphorical – that have swept through his life.

“Hello,” he thinks. “I can relate.”

Yet as O’Neil watches the stump, he notices how the dead wood teems with life: pale mushrooms, scurrying insects, moss in every possible shade of green. A spiderweb is draped like a shroud over the exposed heartwood. There are small holes where a woodpecker went looking for food.

“It’s not a total loss,” he says to himself. “There’s beauty coming out of the pain.”

After the fire, many survivors took solace in seeing the landscape recover. They recalled the profusion of wildflowers that grew out of the ashen landscape, the birds that nested among the tattered trees. These signs of life in Paradise’s ruins were hints of nature’s resilience, reminders that calamity makes room for the world to be remade.

But there are limits to that resilience. Since Paradise burned, Butte County has endured two more catastrophic wildfires. California experienced its worst drought in more than a millennium. Earth saw its hottest year on record.

These accelerating disasters are the calling cards of climate change, scientists say. Human greenhouse gas emissions, mostly from burning fossil fuels, have already warmed the planet at least 1.1 degrees Celsius (2 degrees Fahrenheit) above preindustrial levels. Now, the natural systems that have long sheltered and sustained people are being pushed past their breaking points.

As long as humans continue to pollute, these problems will only get worse. And tragedies like the Camp Fire will be repeated over and over and over again.

“That’s one thing I keep getting asked,” Ellis said. “You’re helping people build this relationship to the land, but this trauma is just going to keep happening. We’re going to keep losing these landscapes that we deeply love, and isn’t that going to create more mental health issues in the future?”

In the early days the forest therapy program, she struggled to respond to this question. But now Ellis has come to see the value of opening oneself up to ecological grief. People need to face the altered world we’ve created, she thinks. Perhaps that will provide the motivation humanity needs to change.

“I’m just like, ‘Let our hearts be broken,’ ” she said. “Let our hearts be broken, because they should be.”

– – –

As the walk comes to a close, Ellis leads the participants over to a picnic table covered with a floral cloth and decorated with pine cones and fir needles. There are plates of cheese, crackers and fruit; a Tupperware of homemade cookies.

A murmur of delight ripples through the group, and Ellis smiles. “Hospitality” is one of the most important elements of forest therapy. Participants must feel safe and cared for, if they are going to heal.

“I didn’t know how much I needed this,” one woman marvels. Others nod in agreement. The walk helped them forget their to-do lists, they say. It reminded them of what they loved about living near wilderness. It made them feel less alone.

A single therapy walk cannot erase the anguish of escaping the Camp Fire. Most people with PTSD rely on a combination of talk therapy, medication, behavioral shifts and other treatments that may last for years. But those who have returned to the forest over and over say the program has been critical to their healing process.

“It’s this exchange of heart and meaning,” says Nelson, who has attended more than two dozen walks. “I felt like a whole human being again.”

While the participants chat, Ellis begins to fill several small wooden cups with a tea she has brewed from herbs found in the area: mugwort, mint, yerba santa.

The spicy scent of yerba santa is familiar to most survivors. After the fire, it was one of the first “pioneer species” to regrow in the burn scar, its fragrance replacing the lingering reek of smoke.

“Before we conclude and pass around the tea,” Ellis says, “we like to offer the first cup to the forest.”

She looks around the table. “Would anyone like to do that?”

A young woman raises her hand. In front of a stout ponderosa pine, she lifts the cup to her head, then her heart, then pours the tea onto the parched and dusty soil – a small gesture of gratitude to the land.

The liquid puddles for just a moment. And then it is absorbed back into the earth from which it came.