More than a year after the Jesusita Fire burned 80 homes to the ground in Santa Barbara, researchers at UCSB have found that the local wildfire and its counterparts also took a toll on the mental health of local residents.

The Santa Barbara area experienced three major fires from 2008 to 2009 that charred thousands of acres of scenic landscape, consumed millions of dollars worth of property and caused thousands of homeowners to evacuate. In a recent study, UCSB scientists reported that the three disasters — the Gap, Tea and Jesusita fires — placed enormous stress on citizens of Santa Barbara, Goleta and Montecito and damaged the psychological health of many residents.

[media-credit id=20125 align=”alignleft” width=”250″][/media-credit]According to UCSB psychologist and survey leader Erika Felix, she and UCSB researcher Walid Afifi began conducting the survey in October 2009 after receiving a grant to study the effects of the recent fires.

Their research, which was conducted via a telephone survey of residents from the fire zone, intended to provide information to healthcare providers about how natural disasters impact peoples’ mental health, allowing the industry to better handle future disasters.

Beginning with the Gap Fire that burned almost 10,000 acres in the summer of 2008, three major wildfires scorched Santa Barbara over the past two years. The area saw its second fire that November when the Tea Fire burned over 2,000 acres of local landscape. The Jesusita Fire last May was the area’s most recent calamity, burning nearly 9,000 acres.

According to Felix, surveyors collected information from over 400 local residents, asking specifically about their mental health before and after the fires. The study’s results, Felix said, revealed that more than 25 percent of survey respondents had reported experiencing symptoms of mental health loss during the fires.

“We asked about how stressful each of the three fires was, if they lost their homes, if they had to evacuate and if so, how many times,” Felix said. “We then asked participants to pick the fire that was most stressful for them and answer the remainder of the questions based on that fire.”

Felix said her study found the fire had unequal impacts across different demographics, affecting family units and poorer demographics more than any other group.

“People who had parents or children that they were responsible for taking care of were more stressed [during the fires],” Felix said. “Poor people also tended to do worse, possibly because they don’t have as many resources. Certain economic influences have an impact on the person’s overall mental health.”

Survey participants were drawn from throughout Santa Barbara County, with over 74 percent residing in Santa Barbara, 20.6 percent in Goleta, and 4.5 percent in Montecito. Residents ranged in age from 18 to 94 and roughly 58 percent of those surveyed were women.