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Ashland's Oak Knoll fire victims suffer psychological effects

Firefighters have extinguished the Oak Knoll fire and the smoke has cleared over the 11 houses burned, but the psychological effects of the disaster remain, said Ashland Fire & Rescue chaplain Mark Anderson.

The worst residential fire in at least 100 years in Ashland has shaken the families who lost their homes, the firefighters who fought the blaze and the community at large, he said.

"What I'm seeing is very similar to grief and I'm also seeing symptoms of shock," Anderson said. "People feel intense loss, and they may feel a loss of control and a fear of the future."

David and Danna Gustafson are trying to accept that the home they retired in on 889 Oak Knoll Drive was destroyed Aug. 24, along with almost everything inside it.

"It's a slow process, actually accepting that your house is gone and thinking of all the little things you liked and will miss," David Gustafson said.

Anderson, trained in crisis intervention and trauma counseling, has spoken with three victims who each lost a house in the fire, he said. The victims have described symptoms of shock and grief, which include having difficulties making decisions, obsessing over minor things, being unable to sleep and being unable cognitively to move on, he said.

"I understand that this is pretty normal, when families lose their entire house and all the belongings in it," he said. "They're overwhelmed by all the decisions they have to make so quickly, such as settling with the insurance company and finding a place to stay."

Anderson, who serves as the pastor of Ashland Christian Fellowship, respects everyone's way of dealing with grief, whether through religion or otherwise, he said.

"Nobody grieves the same way," he said. "Everybody has to process it their own way, as they move from trauma toward acceptance. It's a challenging process."

While the victims are grateful for the outpouring of community support, some of them also feel burdened by the number of phone calls and e-mails they're receiving, Anderson said.

"I think people feel a little overwhelmed not just by what's happened, but by all the attention they're getting, which is in some ways good and in some ways overwhelming," he said.

Gustafson said he has received "one phone call after another and about 200 e-mails" from people offering to help.

"There are a lot of thoughtful people, it's just hard to get them all answered," he said. "There are all kinds of people wanting to know if they can help, and there's not much anybody can actually do, unfortunately."

Some of the fire victims who have children are having an especially difficult time explaining the loss to them, Anderson said.

"The children are expressing a little bit of fear, and they're wondering, 'If this could happen, when it will happen again and will I be ready for it to happen?'" he said. "It's challenging for a parent to reassure a child that things are going to be OK. And there's also the loss of significant toys or belongings that the kids use to get to sleep, for example."

Julie Thomas said the destruction of her family's home at 897 Oak Knoll Drive has been especially difficult for her 17-year-old son, Brady, a senior at Ashland High School.

"He's really had the rug pulled out from under him," she said. "I truly believe it's more difficult on these kids than I ever thought it would be. This is all they've ever known."

People should give the victims space to process their feelings about the fire, Anderson said.

"Do a lot of listening and less talking," he said. "If they need to tell their story several times to the same person, let them, because as they tell it, it begins to lose its power over them."

Many people who hear stories of loss want to interject their own story into the conversation, but that may not always be appropriate, Anderson said.

"Just listen and be supportive and be encouraging," he said. "Help them as they get back to a new normal. It will be a new normal — things will never be like they were."

Firefighters are dealing with feelings of guilt, even though officials say there was nothing else they could have done to save the 11 homes from the wind-whipped fire, said Dana Sallee, engineer and paramedic with Ashland Fire & Rescue.

"As an emergency service employee and a firefighter, these are things that are not supposed to happen," he said. "These are the things you're trained to try to prevent. But in the case of a fire like this, it was out of our control."

Meeting with the families who lost their homes and helping them comb through the rubble also has been challenging, he said.

"The families are coming out hoping to find their home or a portion of some memory they can grasp onto and there's nothing," he said. "Emotionally that's very difficult."

Sallee has caught himself worrying about the potential for another fire to start in the neighborhood, he said.

"I drove by there yesterday after a call just to make sure that everything was OK and there wasn't something that may have possibly gotten heated up over the past three or four days," he said Tuesday.

It can take several days for fire victims to realize the extent of the damage, said Jack Shaw, whose Talent home was destroyed in a March fire.

"It took a few days for it to really set in," he said. "It happened when I was going though the rubble and realizing that my life was lying there in little pieces of ashes. What you've collected through your life — it just disappears. And it's a sad disappearance."

Although losing a home in a fire is tragic, the emotional effects will begin to ease with time, Shaw said.

"I was standing there in front of what used to be my house and one of my friends came up and put her arm on my shoulder, and she said, 'The phoenix rose out of the ashes,'" he said. "And that really fit the moment for me, because it showed me that there's a lot of hope in all the horribleness of it."

Gustafson said he's dealing with the psychological effects of the fire one day at a time — and is spending a lot of time in his motel room resting.

"We've just got to take care of one chore after another, but luckily we're retired and we don't have to worry about jobs or children going to school," he said. "We're staying at a nice motel and it's really quiet, so we have our time by ourselves, and that's been really good."

Contact reporter Hannah Guzik at 541-482-3456 ext. 226 or hguzik@dailytidings.com.