Following the Carmel Fire of 2010 that destroyed over 12,000 acres of forest, a research team from Haifa University led by Professor Michal Shamai, conducted research in three towns to study the effects that the fire had on the residents.
“We always lose something from every traumatic experience. A lack of faith forms and the ability to bounce back depends upon a number of psychological factors,” said Shamai who is a researcher in the department of Social Studies at the University.
“With every traumatic experience we also gain new ways of dealing with issues, we find new strength, and we gain psychological resources that we did not have before,” she added.
“This does not mean that we want to undergo traumatic experiences, in order to gain these psychological tools, but we also have to look at the other, more positive, side of the trauma and the experience.”
Shamai conducted her research together with four of her students, Liraz Solomovich, Hila Sarda, Michal Klein, and Tal Barak. The research team spoke to residents of Kibbutz Beit Oren, Moshav Nir Etzion and the Ein Hod Artist’s Village on two separate occasions, both six months and a year after the fire to gauge for long term effects and changes in condition of the residents.
“We did not talk to them for the first six months due to their being too busy rebuilding their lives. There was also a sensitivity issue involved,” Shamai explained.
The research focused on pinpointing various symptoms of PTSD and stress, as well as determining both the individuals ability to bounce back after the fire as well as the ability of the community. It also monitored psychological resources both on the individual as well as the community level.
Shamai and her team found that the while traumatic symptoms lasting longer than a year were quite low across the board, the stress level was higher. The attributed this to the lessening of support that the residents felt from outside sources, as well as the loss of faith in formalized systems of response such as the fire department and police force, and in the formal responses from the communities.
“We have no one that we can rely upon,” was a common refrain that Shamai’s team heard following the fire. Residents felt that official branches of the government as well as the responsible response teams such as the fire department and the police force let them down.
What made matters worse was the sense that the government had not followed through with its promises to help the residents rebuild their lives after the fire. “There was a lot of help offered and a lot of promises made by various levels of government, but as of one year following the fire, the feeling of the residents was that the promises were not fulfilled.” Shamai was unable to comment if that was still the case.
What alleviated the situation for the residents, was the increased attachment to other members of their community and the help that was provided by individual volunteers as well as NGO’s who offered help and support after the fire.
“Support that was offered externally, both from the established branches of the community, and from many volunteers and NGO’s seemed to die down after a year. This caused a spike in stress levels of one of the towns we were working with,” Shamai related. “It seems that the faith in the town’s ability to bounce back had diminished, but the individual’s ability to bounce back was unchanged. People rose to the challenge and bonded together due to the tragedy.”
“We found that communities provided a strong communal support system both during and after the first year.”
Another notable discovery in the research was the way in which the residents were able to scale their sense of loss. Perhaps even too much. “We found that the residents were uncomfortable speaking about their own financial or property loss, in light of the loss of life, particularly with regards to the loss of life that occurred in the bus tragedy that killed 37 people.”
Shamai also relayed that the residents felt a sense of loss and had difficulty dealing with the change in the physical appearance of the previously pristine and forested mountain range. According to her report, the residents have been banding together to work on and care for the rehabilitation of the forests as well as their own town.