96° F Thursday, July 27, 2017

Julia Hickman was in a unique position when it came to the aftermath of the Bastrop County Complex Fire. The Bastrop professional psychologist counseled people experiencing trauma, as well as dealing with the loss of her own home in Circle D, where one of the two main blazes started from a downed electrical line.

And she makes no bones about still personally experiencing some of that trauma.

“I drove down Highway 21 a while ago, because I don’t go down that road anymore,” Hickman recalled. “I’m pretty strong psychologically, but it was very traumatic for me driving back down that road. I got kind of sick in my stomach and was very sad, not only for myself but for the whole ugliness of the event.”

She said the thick stand of pines that previously reached back from Hwy. 21 “was the most gorgeous drive before, but it’s not anymore. I can’t do the drive anymore – I get too triggered (with emotions). Four of my best friends lost their homes, we were a close-knit group. And seven of my clients lost their homes.”

Hickman said it is understandable many people are having heightened emotions with the fire’s Sept. 4 anniversary approaching.

“Anxiety symptoms are still very prevalent following one year after the fire,” Hickman said. “When an anniversary date approaches for that magnitude of loss – like the fire – or any loss of that magnitude, people often start to re-experience many of the initial feelings they had of despair, sadness, anger and disbelief. I didn’t quit functioning, but a lot of people are not functioning very well after the fires.”

Hickman said she’s encountered a whole gamut of emotions from her clients who went through the fire.

“Oh yes, they have nightmares,” she said. “I didn’t have to flee my home, but some Circle D people did. Those people were escaping as flames were lapping up the back of their homes. They have that additional trauma.”

Hickman said simple smells connected with the fire can be a powerful trigger of emotions.

“For many people, they can’t stand to cook on the grill now,” she said. “They don’t want to see fire, and if they smell fire, it acts as a trigger.”

Additionally, currents news and photos of wildfires across the U.S. can have a powerful affect.

“All the stuff about the new wildfires in California and other places, all those images can bring up their own traumas,” she said.

Hickman talked about the reactions of youth she saw in the in the months after the fire.

“I’ve counseled youth and adults. The youth appear to be somewhat better in coping, but often that can depend on how the adults around them are coping. If an adult is coping, then the child can pick up that up. But the reverse can also happen, if the adult is not coping,” she explained.

She said some children had it particularly rough.

“For some children, you go to sleep, go to church and everything is great, and then all of a sudden, everything you’ve ever known is destroyed – it’s very frightening for kids,” Hickman said. “There were children who were shuttled from family to family or shelter to shelter. The kids I saw, they were scared. Some of them didn’t want to go to sleep at night without a parent who was no more than five feet away from them. Many children were displaced. Some didn’t even know where they would be sleeping at night, but they still had to do homework and turn in assignments.”

Hickman said anniversary events that will be held in the coming days could be beneficial for some people, but she also cautioned it could be a triggering agent for other people.

“It might help some people to hear how other people have survived following the trauma of the fire,” Hickman said. “And it feels good to know you are on the ‘other’ side of a (major) event.”

But she said it would be good for organizers of the anniversary gathering to have people on standby for fire survivors that may re-experience the trauma associated with the fire.

“I believe that for most people who lost homes, the fire was a significant event,” Hickman said. “And whether they appear to have sailed through it, there’s some residual effect one year later. I still see it in people.


  1. Norbert l. Simon says:

    Julia: I usually read all the online articles but for some missed yours until now. My wife and I who lived on the corner of FM 1441 and Charolais Dr were among those who had just a short time to escape as the fire started about a half mile north of us and was driven by gale force winds from the north. It was a strange confluence of events–north winds in Sept created by counterclockwise flow flow from a hurricane off the Texas Gulf Coast and exceptionally dry conditions caused by the drought. Driving home fom Bastrop about 30 minutes before the fire, my wife and I both expressed alarm about the fire possiblities. As soon as we smelled smoke we looked out the door and saw the large cloud of smoke heading our way. We lost no time evacuating, and had to leave with only the clothes on our back. The lady next door to us suffered some burns attempting to fight the fire with a hose but was forced to leave by firefighters. Unfortunately she lost her two pet dogs which was very traumatic to her. Another close neighbor had just finished building a chicken house and yard in which he had placed large numbers of an exotic chicken breed. The family was not home when the fire started and all the chickens were lost. Fortunately they did not have to witness that cruel scene.
    As to psychological effects I try not to dwell in my mind scenes of our house actually burning. It had to be a fierce blaze as it was built primarily of wood. It is hard however, to escape reminders as pictures of burning structures are so often seen on the news or movies. I do hate to reflect on the fate of the chickens next door. This neighbor moved away and has not returned to his former residence.
    We were fortunate after the fire to have a church family who assisted the members who had lost their homes. For over a year after the fire we met once a week at the church which was a great morale builder for all of us. I feel sorry for those who did not have this opportunity. Like you, we find it hard to drive around this area and view all the destruction. As more and more trees fall there will be large open areas where once there were abundant pines. But eventually the area will be restored and new growth will take place just like it always does after disasters of this type. Thank you for counseling all those who feel they need help overcoming some of the trauma. Clearly some will need help more than others.

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