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'I Lost My Story': How Ventura County Psychologist Who Lost Own Home In Wildfire Is Using The Experience To Help Others

Dr Noelle Nelson's home was burned down in the Woolsey wildfire
(photo courtesy of Dr Noelle Nelson)
Dr. Noelle Nelson's home was burned down in the Woolsey wildfire.

A Ventura County based psychologist who lost her home to the Woolsey Fire in November 2017, has now written a book to help others who have suffered a similar loss.

Losing everything in a wildfire or a natural disaster is devastating, as Camarillo-based psychologist Dr. Noelle Nelson knows first hand.

She lost her beloved home in the Woolsey wildfire, in November 2018.

"Total destruction. Everything gone. I'd just turned 71, so you're looking at 70 years of life [gone]," Dr. Nelson told KCLU.

The Woolsey wildfire raged through nearly 100,000 acres in Ventura and Los Angeles counties. She was one of 300,000 people evacuated from the path of the fire.

"This was my third or fourth evacuation. I immediately grabbed my two big dogs, I grabbed my laptop and I grabbed a small box of my mom's jewelry, and left. That was it," she says of that fateful night.

"We stayed up all night and I didn't learn until Saturday that my house had burned down."

The next time she saw her home, it was just ash.

"I didn't know cement could turn to powder. We are talking about a two-story, 2,700 square foot house burned to the ground in 40 minutes," says Nelson. "You don't conceive that big a thing with all of those things in it, could just be ash and that's it."

Nelson has just written Phoenix Rising - Surviving Catastrophic Loss: Fires, Floods, Hurricanes and Tornadoes.

The book explores the trauma of losing all your possessions in a disaster, the photos and memorabilia of a lifetime, and then how to survive the immediate aftermath and find the strength to start a new chapter in life.

Dr Nelson's home before the devastating wildfire
(photo courtesy of Dr Noelle Nelson)
Dr Nelson's home before the devastating wildfire

Of her own experience, she says after the fire she couldn't sleep and is still suffering Post Traumatic Stress.

"I would lie there every night and just go through every room of the house. Go through every single drawer. Every closet. Every wall-hanging - you name, I could not sleep.

"People would say to me, 'Oh Noelle, it's just stuff,' and to a certain extent they're right. Socks and T-shirts and the like.

"Eventually I blurted out, 'It's NOT just stuff.'"

She says a friend understood, and told her, "Oh, you lost your story."

"He was right. I lost my story."

The psychologist says that she’s used her personal experience of wildfire loss to write her latest book – Phoenix Rising – to help others in similar circumstances and to help heal her own trauma.

"I love to help and I thought I certainly wasn't the only one going through this. I thought well if there's anything that I've learned that can help somebody else, then I'm going to do it. My way has always been to write. And yes, it did help [me]."

Dr. Nelson says that one way she found to cope with the traumatic loss was to keep going with her usual routine.

"I kept doing what I call, 'my do.' Everybody's got this in their lives. For me it was my church, my ballroom dancing classes and my ballet classes.

"Out of those, came miracles. Through those, I started to recognize how wonderful people are. There may be a few rotten apples in our global population but in my experience, 99.9% of people are good-hearted and compassionate and would pretzel themselves to help.

"I realized that even though I had lost everything... I had everything."

Caroline joined KCLU in October 2020. She won LA Press Club's Audio Journalist of the Year Award in 2022 and 2023.

Since joining the station she's won 7 Golden Mike Awards, 4 Los Angeles Press Club Awards and 2 National Arts & Entertainment Awards.

She started her broadcasting career in the UK, in both radio and television for BBC News, 95.8 Capital FM and Sky News and was awarded the Prince Philip Medal for her services to radio and journalism in 2007.

She has lived in California for ten years and is both an American and British citizen - and a very proud mom to her daughter, Elsie.
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