This mixed-media visual essay, based on the 2003 Okanagan wildfires, illustrates the depth and meaning of the loss of one’s home and family possessions.
By Mary Ann Murphy, Fern Helfand, Penny Cash, and David Scott
This work recounts the first-hand narratives of 25 Kelowna, BC families one year after losing their homes in the 2003 Okanagan Mountain Park Fire – one of the largest wildland-urban interface fires in Canadian history (Filmon, 2004, p.10).
Although started by a single lightning strike, the sight of an entire mountainside and homes ablaze mesmerized everyone.
This essay is a tribute to these families, and others like them, who typically react to the suddenness, speed, and intensity of a wildfire with surprise, shock, disbelief and acute stress. This disaster experience can culminate in hallmarks of grief and post-traumatic stress (Marshall et al., 2007, p. 512). Emergency responders and Emergency Social Services (ESS) workers should readily apply these families’ timeless recollections to better understand and help victims of other disasters, particularly those affected by the increasing frequency and severity of fires (United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change,1992; Wang et al., 2015). Three themes are identified from our research: 1) the meaning of home 2) other losses and 3) the significance of lost objects.
Earth and Environmental Scientist, Dr. David Scott (Research Chair in Watershed Management) describes the 2003 fire conditions.
A. THE MEANING OF HOME
Man reacts to the visual impact of seeing his home destroyed.
Photo credit: Donated by one of the family participants
“I say I lost my home (not my house) – a home that was really lived in and was happy and surrounded by antiques that were my grandmothers… the new place will be a house for a little while until some living is done in it, some memories happen …”
More than one mother described the homage of cleaning up the kitchen and leaving a light on when they closed the door on their home for the last time. Our ties to home – seen by these families in retrospect- may interact with elements of people, environment and time (Moore, 2003, p. 213).
The ties to home, and an emotional attachment to treasured and everyday objects – particularly the memories that they evoke- run deeply across generations of families. As one father said, “the culmination of your life is your home… a place of peace and healing.” One woman described home as the place where you “gather without pretense and share a common history.” Another woman movingly said that if she could stand in front of her old house, she would say “…[I’m] sorry- so long…it’s been good to know you!”
We examined the real and significant meaning of home in the context of the monumental disruption of the families’ lives. Home was described as a refuge, a sanctuary, a place to exercise daily rituals, a “reflection of your interior self,” and a place where you generally prevail and “expend your most positive energy.” In the words of these families, home represented the “most comfortable place,” “a place of family celebration [and holidays],” a place to create and continue traditions,” and, a welcoming and hospitable hub “for everyone to return to” as well as a “safe retreat from the problems of [city] life.” One man summarized that “when you feel that everything you earned, the most private part of you has been taken away- it’s really hard, you know?” “To not be able to go [back] at 5 o’clock … was devastating to me-what we have now is just a house.” Another person said, “I would walk to the North Pole and back just to get my [old] house back, even though I know that this new [one] will be nicer!”
The constancy of home.
B. OTHER LOSSES
These victims lost more than a physical structure. Home was frequently described as being “a safe environment for raising a family, and a safe harbor to come home to every day.” Many family members stated that they lost the comfort of home, with home being a “place not to worry.” They pined over the loss of neighborhood attachment for their children and their friends, privacy, and both the “valuable time” they put into planning, building or maintaining their homes, and all the “lost time” later devoted to insurance claims.
The disruption of routine (Paveglio et al., 2015, p.7; Botey & Kulig, 2014) was well described by one father: “… especially with kids, it is the profound loss of a year of your life and the rhythms of where you were going, what you were planning to do, your family life- it is like a low grade, constant stress … like a light noise hum that never goes away.” Another father stated “what we lost was a year of peace” and another said, “we lost the comfort of knowing our kids were always in the living room.” Losses attributed to the fire appeared to only accentuate nostalgic feelings of place attachment (Lawrence& Anton,2014,p. 452). The term solastalgia refers to the loss of the comfort provided by a natural, intact landscape (Albrecht, 2006, p.34). One woman, in reference to this concept, stated: “I lost the place where I could take sustenance from the environment – it looked like Sarajevo here!” Some of the fire victims described how they nurtured back tiny surviving plants – unwilling to let them die.
A woman reacts to the destruction of her familiar landscape.
C. LOST AND MEMORIALIZED OBJECTS
What is the real meaning of the relationship between people and their interactions with everyday, taken for granted, things? Although clearly grateful to have survived, these families pined after a variety of valued and highly cherished – yet often inexpensive – objects. These objects included gifts received from grandparents, childhood toys, handmade presents, trophies and medals, books and collections (records, rare woods, family recipes, tools), photo albums, paintings, Christmas decorations forgotten during the summer season, and souvenirs of holidays and adventures. Some of these items were brought to Canada by immigrant families, and some represented a time in life when one sacrificed a great deal to acquire them. Other objects were tied to familiar and comforting rituals.
One mother desperately sifted through the rubble to locate the MOM coffee cup she ritually drank out of each day after work. To her great joy, the broken treasure was recovered!
A variety of academic fields, such as social archeology, have recognized the ‘subjective value’ of these material things with their ascribed meanings influenced by our age, life stage, and experiences (Kleine & Baker, 2004, p. 2). These objects connect us to home, provide statements about our identities, represent shared events and are part of how we relate to the world. They help the past to survive (Pearce, 2004). Objects become imbued with meaning because for many of us they represent our social links and family histories. Objects are a form of self-expression. These objects are a touchstone for our memories and aspirations (Barnett et al., 2016, p. 2). For many, when these objects are destroyed, we think deeply about how we acquired, used, displayed, interacted with, shared, and miss them. Many of the couples we interviewed expressed a nagging guilt from overlooking or failing to preserve those items, such as baby books and hockey trophies, that represented family ‘treasures’ and their children’s legacies. The acute evacuation stress they experienced had been framed as self-blame: “…we were just so panicked and confused at the time… you know?”
To conclude, these families also described some now well-documented gains they associated with the fire. These included clarifying their values, and appreciating the importance of their community, neighborhoods, and families. The wild poppies illustrate their hopes.
Super heating of the soil post-fire caused a rare rejuvenation and germination process!
If you would like to hear more about this work, you can link to the online version to hear a description by Dr. Mary Ann Murphy, one of the researchers.
A family memorialized the fire in their new rock wall.
All photographs and animations unless otherwise credited, were created by Fern Helfand
Albrecht, G. (2006) ‘Solastalgia: Environmental damage has made it possible to be homesick without leaving home,’ Alternatives Journal, 32(4-5), pp. 34-37.
Anton, C. E., and Lawrence, C. (2014) Home is where the heart is: The effect of place of residence on place attachment and community participation. Journal of Environmental Psychology, 40, pp. 451-461.
Barnett, J., Tschakert, P., Head, L. and Adger, W.N. (2016) A science of loss, Nature Climate Change, 6(11), pp. 976.
Botey, A.P. and Kulig, J.C. (2014) Family functioning following wildfires: Recovering from the 2011 Slave Lake fires, Journal of Child and Family Studies, 23(8), pp. 1471-1483.
Filmon, G. (2004) Firestorm 2003 Provincial Review, British Columbia Firestorm 2003 Provincial Review.
Kleine, S.S. and Baker, S.M. (2004) An integrative review of material possession attachment, Academy of Marketing Science Review, 2004, pp. 1.
Marshall, G.N., Schell, T.L., Elliott, M.N., Rayburn, N.R. and Jaycox, L.H. (2007) Psychiatric disorders among adults seeking emergency disaster assistance after a wildland-urban interface fire, Psychiatric services, 58(4), pp. 509-514.
Moore, J. (2000) Placing home in context. Journal of Environmental Psychology, 20(3), pp. 207-217.
Paveglio, T.B., Kooistra, C., Hall, T. and Pickering, M. (2016) Understanding the effect of large wildfires on residents’ well-being: What factors influence wildfire impact? Forest Science, 62(1), pp. 59-69.
Pearce, S.M. (1994) Objects as meaning; or narrating the past. Chapter 4 in Interpreting objects and collections, pp. 19-29. London: Routledge.
United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change. (1994) Treaty Series, 1771, pp. 107. Retrieved from https://treaties.un.org/pages/ViewDetailsIII.aspx?src=TREATY&mtdsg_no=XXVII-7&chapter=27&Temp=mtdsg3&clang=_en
Wang, X., Thompson, D.K., Marshall, G.A., Tymstra, C., Carr, R. and Flannigan, M.D., (2015) Increasing frequency of extreme fire weather in Canada with climate change, Climatic Change, 130(4), pp. 573-586.