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Mental health at risk as California wildfire threat grows

In California communities haunted by wildfires losses and new fire threats, the damage has not been only physical. Anxiety, depression and other mental health challenges linked to the fires are growing – and residents say they fear more trauma is ahead.

Tasha Ritza lost her house, her job and her hometown on the day a wildfire destroyed Paradise, California. A year later, her life is still in tatters, she said.

“I’m at a loss. I deal with a lot of anxiety. I can’t figure out if I want to stay, if I want to go,” she told the Thomson Reuters Foundation. “I haven’t worked in a year.

“In a day it was all taken from me, and it’s not getting any easier,” said Ritza, who ran a kitchen in one of the Paradise public schools before the fire. She has moved to nearby Chico while she struggles to decide what to do next.

“This whole county has PTSD, depression,” said Michele Evans, a young mother who worked at a dance studio in Paradise before the fire, referring to post-traumatic stress disorder.

“Everybody could use some counseling, the whole county,” she added.

The wildfire that swept through the northern California town of Paradise in November 2018 was the most deadly in state history, killing 85 people.

Panicked residents fled burning homes and abandoned their cars on blocked streets, running through flames down the main roadway to escape their mountain town, once popular with retirees.

Today only about 10% of the 27,000 people who once lived there remain.

Some moved just up the road to the small mountain community of Magalia and others to bigger cities nearby such as Chico and Sacramento. But many left the area altogether after the fire destroyed almost 18,800 structures, more than half of them homes.

In the charred remains of Paradise, a few people still live in trailers on the burned-out lots where their homes once stood.

California has long suffered seasonal wildfires, but longer dry seasons and more powerful winds – which scientists link to climate change – are helping make the blazes far more destructive, raising risks – and fears.