Opinion: Wildfire aftermath is a slow burn; Return home brings more trauma

It starts the day you come back. If your home is standing, you will be among the first to return. There is a celebration. There are flags waving and music playing as Red Cross volunteers hand out hundreds of re-entry kits with cleaning supplies. Everyone vows to rebuild, whatever it takes.

You walk through your front door to find everything permeated by smoke. Carpets, blankets, clothes, children’s toys. Power outages mean your refrigerator is full of rotting food. Long lines of trucks haul ruined appliances to the landfill. Hundreds of families join a waiting list at the furniture stores where staff scrub smoke from the walls. Grocery stores, pharmacies, schools and daycares — every workplace is cleaning up.

If you lost your home, you don’t return in the first wave. You need rental accommodation, which must be approved by your insurance company. There are delays as insurers process thousands of claims. There are no waving flags when you straggle into town weeks later. You need to clean your rental unit, but there is a shortage of cleaning supplies.

You find the Red Cross has cut back on support. Re-entry kits are long gone. The few Red Cross workers remaining tell you they are winding down assistance. Whenever you need help, you are referred to the Red Cross. You call many times and never speak to the same person twice. They promise to call back. They never do.