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Colorado wildfires continue to trigger PTSD, but there are ways to cope

Experts say it's normal to have intrusive thoughts, but it's important to find community so they don't take over life.

DENVER — People know what fire does, but not everyone knows what it feels like to see smoke and wonder, will it happen again?

"What we've realized is that our communities' collective nervous system is on high alert," Dr. Janine D’Anniballe, the director of trauma services at Mental Health Partners, said.

Just as thousands of people resettle after the Marshall Fire took their homes, another fire flared up less than ten miles away over the weekend. 

"The NCAR fire has undoubtedly triggered a lot of response from the Marshall Fire, and then I suspect as we move on through the warmer months and fire danger increases, that will also be a trigger," said D'Anniballe. "Anytime there’s a fire anywhere in the state could trigger the response. So I anticipate we’ll see more need as the year progresses." 

RELATED: Here's how firefighters kept the NCAR Fire from reaching homes

RELATED: NCAR Fire fuels discussions on effects of climate change

Dr. Konoy Mandal sees the need for coping with trauma caused by fires, too. He's the director of the Refractory Depression Clinic at UCHealth, and his family of six also lost their home in the Marshall Fire. 

He recognized one phase of trauma in himself when he saw the pilot light in his fireplace in their new home he felt angry and sad seeing fire inside his home. 

"Part of the intrusive thoughts, the hyper vigilance are healthy," said Mandal. "If you didn't have that you wouldn't be processing it." 

But without talking through those thoughts or processing them, Mandal said people can become numb and avoid things in life they think could trigger them. He worries about that the most in kids. 

"This is disproportionately affecting kids and I don’t think enough people are talking about that," he said, adding that adults have more of a "historical fabric" and a "choice" about where they live and stay. 

Compounded with the pandemic, Mandal said kids who experience fire trauma might wonder if they'll ever feel safe and trust again. 

The community can help kids cope by showing them a view of their life that is not just through the lens of the bad things they've seen happen. 

Mandal emphasizes giving kids "a sense of control" that could include talking about fire mitigation and water cycles. 

"On one hand you want a car filled with gas or electricity, an emergency bag, pet options, and be ready to roll," he said. "But on the other hand you want to jump on your trampoline and eat your popsicles."  

Mandal has three words for coping as wildfires continue trigger trauma in Coloradans. "Community, community, community," he said.

RELATED: More than $38M was donated to Marshall Fire victims. Here's where the money's going.

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