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More than a few people had harrowing escapes from the fast-moving blaze that kicked off the Bastrop County Complex Fire on Sunday afternoon, Sept. 4, 2011, according to fire and police officials. Many more people returned to homes that either been burned to cinders or barely remained.

For many youth and adults the effects of trauma from the fire continued in the weeks and months that followed. According to mental health professionals, anniversaries of disaster events can also be anxious times, including the approaching one-year anniversary of the Complex fire on Sept. 4.

For many of those affected by the fire – including responding firefighters and law enforcement officers who also lost homes – the availability of immediate counseling was of great help, said Mike Fisher, Bastrop County’s emergency management coordinator.

“There’s no question the fire affected first responders, as well as others,” Fisher said. “We put in a special request early on, within a few days of the fire, specifically for first responders (for counseling services.) I think many of them made use of it.”

Fisher said the strong bonds among first responders had a ripple effect when it came to the loss of their homes and property. It was a double whammy for some – having to stand back and watch the tremendous push of the fire take the homes of residents and their compadres.

For many of the firefighters, “The fire was the biggest event of their career, it was overwhelming,” Fisher said. “And they are such a tight bunch, if one person lost a home, they all are affected.”

A local agency helps

Fisher credited Bluebonnet Trails Community Services, a non-profit mental health organization based in Bastrop and Round Rock, for their strong response in providing counseling to those who sought it. Counseling at schools and from private practices was also available in the area. (See related story).

“Bluebonnet Trails did a tremendous job, we were glad to have them aboard and in the community,” Fisher said of the non-profit with offices in both Bastrop and Round Rock.

Darla Absher, one of Bluebonnet Trails professional counselors, said that since January, Bluebonnet Trails had counseled 786 people in group sessions who sought help in dealing with the aftereffects of the fire.

“We also went out in teams to the fire areas to talk to people,” Absher added.

Bluebonnet Trails was able to deliver a counseling program – Texas P.R.I.D.E (People Recovering In Spite of Devastating Events) Crisis Counseling –  through a FEMA grant awarded to the Texas Department of State Health Services, and then passed on to Bluebonnet.

That program continues through Oct. 31, but Absher emphasized that Bluebonnet Trails staff will continue to provide counseling to those affected by the fire after that date.

Absher said her team encountered some pronounced effects when interviewing who survived the fire.

“You hear folks say things like, ‘Just the smell of burning trash still makes me feel sick deep inside,’” Absher related in a recent interview recorded by the Texas Health and Human Services Commission.

Absher added that some people involved in the fire had “extreme stress reactions such as hyper-vigilance, anxiety attacks or stomach pain.”

And a year later, does not necessarily mean that time and distance has lessened the emotional impact, Absher emphasized. She and other counselors  concur that those wanting to talk to a professional counselor may need that assistance well beyond the one-year anniversary of the fire, and should not consider that need unusual in any way.

Services still available

All services provided by Bluebonnet Trails are confidential and are provided free of charge, and can be delivered in survivors’ homes. Everyone affected by the fires, directly or indirectly, is encouraged to call Bluebonnet Trails for individual and group crisis counseling for adults, adolescents, and children.

Twice-weekly support group sessions in Bastrop are held on Tuesdays, 6:30–7:30 p.m. at the Circle D Fire Station at 969 FM 1441, and on Wednesdays, 6:30–7:30 p.m. at the Tahitian Village Fire Station on Corporate Drive.

For more information, call Bluebonnet Trails Community Services at 512-718-7817 or email them at firsthelp@bbtrails.org.

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