Lance Friis, LMFT, brought his skills as a Kaiser Permanente therapist and a major in the California State Military Reserve to help those searching the destroyed town of Paradise, Calif.
Lance Friis describes the now scorched mountain town of Paradise where he recently volunteered as “a moonscape.”
“Everything is gray, everywhere.”
Friis is a marriage and family therapist at the Kaiser Permanente Oakland Medical Center. He’s also a long-time disaster relief worker who for the past 11 years has been a major in the California State Military Reserve.
“Helping is in Lance’s DNA,” said Friis’ supervisor, Timothy Barry, LCSW. “He’s dedicated his life to caring for others in everything he does, including his patients, his family, and even strangers in need. We’re incredibly grateful and proud of Lance.”
Friis has been a therapist for 35 years and helped at disaster sites for decades — from Super Storm Sandy to Oakland’s Ghost Ship Fire.
But he said Paradise was something else altogether.
“It was the most devastation of any disaster site I’ve ever seen.”
Being Called Up
Butte County’s Camp Fire began in the early afternoon of Nov. 8, burning so quickly through the densely treed area that within a day the blaze leveled the town of Paradise and neighboring community of Concow.
Friis typically works one weekend a month to fulfill his duties with the reserve embedded in the 143rd Field Artillery Battalion of the California National Guard.
At Kaiser Permanente, he is in the Department of Psychiatry as part of the trauma team and helps patients in crisis.
On Nov. 13, Friis was called up to support the 49th Military Police Brigade in devastated Paradise.
With another therapist who’s a longtime friend, he would be providing emotional support to the engineer battalion tasked with going through the charred homes and businesses, as well as hastily abandoned cars and roads. They would be searching for human remains.
Giving Emotional Support
How do you witness devastation of such magnitude, then help others through it?
Friis was buoyed by his personal mission in life — “I’ve always wanted to help people” — and said that he was impressed by the engineers, some of whom were from nearby Chico and were “people with a purpose and a mission.”
About 125 National Guard soldiers were housed in Marsh Junior High’s gym in Chico. Friis’s team awoke by 5 a.m. each morning, ate, was briefed on the day’s mission, and was in Paradise until about 9 every night. Other groups worked in Concow and Magalia.
“As a therapist, I was really with them all the time, living together side by side,” Friis said of the engineers. “We would sometimes talk about what we saw or felt, but we also would just talk about life.”
Friis was asked to speak up if anyone needed to go home. But he said no one did. “Morale was good because they were helping out their community and their friends.”
People Were Resilient
Friis and his group worked for 15 days straight. They saw a lot of sheriffs, soldiers, FEMA workers, elite firefighters, and Urban Search and Rescue. But no townspeople.
At one point, the wind and rain hit, creating yet another stressor: Friis was asked to be a safety officer watching for falling trees.
He described city blocks of ash and then an occasional intact home. Once he saw 4 untouched houses in a row that were surrounded by cinders. Sometimes a beloved object would survive the destruction—a piece of pottery, a child’s doll.
“The hardest thing was looking at homes that had belonged to people who had lost everything they owned. I was an intruder during the worst moment of their lives.”
The team was dismissed on Nov. 27. They’d learn the Camp Fire was the deadliest and most destructive wildfire in California history. It caused at least 85 civilian fatalities, encompassed about 153,336 acres, and destroyed nearly 19,000 structures. Insured damage is estimated at $7.5–10 billion.
Kaiser Permanente committed $1.65 million for California wildfire recovery efforts and has provided volunteering opportunities for employees such as Friis who want to help.
Friis has a dry cough from the smoke that still plagues him. He also thinks about the evacuated people he met at a Chico shelter.
“After shelter, food, and clothing, they are going to need psychological first aid,” he said. “They’ll need a tremendous amount of support if they rebuild their homes and possibly an entire community. Despite it all, the people I met were resilient. They were still interested in moving forward.”