Even in Emergencies, Some People Just Won't Leave

Deciding whether to stay in their homes or evacuate is a choice many Californians have had to make this week as wildfires continue to ravage the state, leveling houses and displacing more than 500,000 residents.

And while many have dutifully followed authorities' orders and evacuated their homes and communities, there are still some people who are reluctant to do so.

Trauma specialists told ABCNEWS.com that individuals who decide to stay in their homes and attempt to protect it from the flames themselves are often those who struggle with overwhelming feelings of anxiety about the unknown.

In Times of Trauma, People Want Control

"As I look at the fires, the thing that strikes me the most, is the lack of knowing, and how that lack of knowing spikes people's anxieties," said Russell Kormann, assistant director of the Rutgers University Anxiety Disorder Clinic. "Anticipatory anxiety is the worst kind of anxiety — there is nothing that anyone can say to convince these people that what they are worried about happening, won't, in fact, happen."

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Anticipatory anxiety, Kormann explained, occurs when a person is worrying about an event that could potentially be life or property threatening — much like the California wildfires.

"The reason many people decide to stay is because they feel like it gives them better control," said Kormann. "It gives them the idea they are concerting more control than if they were in a motel, watching the event unfold on TV."

"Many people don't want to give up control, and they want to fight, even though they can't put the fire out themselves — it's temporarily empowering," said Todd Walker, a clinical psychologist who specializes in treating trauma. "To be able to leave your home is to be able to tolerate the reality of uncertainty, and the loss of their home as they know it."

Denial also plays a role in people's decisions to stay in dangerous areas during natural disasters. People would rather stay and try to convince themselves that the fire could never reach them, Walker said, than actually face the reality of the situation.

"People think to themselves that they don't want to give up their paradises," said Walker, who has treated patients whose lives were destroyed by natural disasters.

"They think that they've worked hard, built beautiful homes, and can't imagine surrendering to the possibility that the fire could take that all away. They will literally stay there until their lives are physically threatened."

People who find themselves in the direct path of disasters often also have a false sense of security, said Melissa Brymar, the director of terrorism and disaster program for the National Center for Child Traumatic Stress — especially if they have never experienced a traumatic event.

"Some people feel they've lived through other wildfires, or other disasters, and it hasn't happened in their community, and so they feel it won't happen to them," Brymar told ABCNEWS.com.

Coping When You're Forced to Evacuate

"We know that the disruptions of having to evacuate and being displaced can have an impact on the entire family," said Brymar. "Some common reactions are increased fear, anxiety, or a general concern for your safety, or the safety of others. Kids may have increased fears or worries when they are separated from family members — they'll be clingier.

"When families return back to the wildfire destructed areas, the reminders — the smell, or the sounds of sirens or helicopters — may increase families' anxieties, and they might have difficulties with attention and concentration," added Brymar.

Experts suggest always having a plan for your family in case of emergency, and thinking ahead about what you may take with you if left with no other choice but to evacuate.

Brymar said that adults should be sure to take any important paperwork that will make rebuilding their lives easier, such as insurance documents and bank statements, and children should be instructed to bring toys or blankets that have provided comfort to them in the past. Irreplaceable photographs are also items often carried out of homes being evacuated, Brymar said.

And in terms of dealing with the trauma, after the fact, psychologists say that the best cure is to talk openly about your experiences.

"The avoidance never works for anyone," said Kormann. "People try to bury it and avoid reminders of it. Worst thing you can do: There is really no way to really put it away and avoid it — there are too many environmental variables that will remind you of the trauma. For example, the date of the calendar will always come around.

"The best treatment solution is actually the opposite — talk about it as often as you can with as many people as you can," suggested Kormann.