Alberta Lawyers' Assistance Society

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Fires, Fires, Everywhere

Fires, Fires, Everywhere

The last few weeks have been tumultuous for many of us. Forest fires destroyed Lahaina, Yellowknife was evacuated, and the west side of Lake Okanagan was ravaged. This week, fires are active north of the Okanagan in the Shuswap, where confrontations between a group of freedom-loving folks and the fire fighting organization have led to a withdrawal of firefighting services. Instead of a low-key wind-down of summer, we are having an August of devastation.
Events like this are stressful, even when we are not in the path of the fire or do not own property at risk of destruction. These events make us realize that we often take our safety for granted and that cataclysms can and do happen, closer to us than we realize.
My son got married earlier this month. He knew that I had been planning my speech about him for his wedding since he was a preschooler. His older brother, who got married in June, took evasive action and said that the only speakers at his wedding would be the best man and the maid of honour. So, I was even more eager to produce something special for #2 son since I was denied the other opportunity. I put together a slideshow of favourite photos of my son in his preschool days accompanied by stories about him and how we would be an excellent husband.
But two days before the wedding, we learned of the out-of-control forest fires in Lahaina, a favourite destination of my family while visiting Maui which we did frequently to stave off my tendency toward seasonal affective disorder. Every trip, we took a photo of our three boys eating ice cream cones in Lahaina, enjoying the pirate ship in the harbour, and interacting with the giant banyan tree that is more than 150 years old! I considered whether I should open my slideshow with a trigger warning, that I would be showing photos of much-loved landmarks that had just been destroyed, but I was over my time limit (substantially, as it turns out) and I hoped that people would focus on my son more than the scenery.
And less than one week later, amid reports of forest fires threatening Yellowknife, we heard that fires on the west side of Okanagan Lake had consumed the Lake Okanagan Resort, another family favourite vacation place, along with a friend’s cabin further north on Westside Road. I had eight photos of my son on the west side of Lake Okanagan (in addition to the six in Lahaina) in my wedding speech slideshow, and I don’t know whether our friends’ cabin survived or not.
Then stress came closer to my family: my newly married son and his wife flew into Kelowna to attend a wedding, just before the airport was shut down to civilian aircraft. No rental cars were available, so they were stuck in an unevacuated part of the city. I felt badly for the bride and groom—their engagement party had been cancelled due to COVID, and their wedding was threatened. But most of all, I wanted my son and daughter-in-law to be safe. The wedding, outdoors at a vineyard south of Kelowna, proceeded amid thick smoke. Some guests opted to stay home, and some vendors were unable to fulfill their commitments.
My son and his wife were able to fly home on Sunday night when the airport reopened to civilian aircraft, so my family’s loss is limited to the loss of favourite vacation spots. My heart goes out to folks who lost their homes, pets, and sense of security.
We don’t have to have been directly impacted by rampant forest fires to feel the stress that uncontrollable events can have on our lives. In the twenty-first century world, we humans have come to believe that we are masters of the universe, only to discover that our sense of control is somewhat illusory. If forest fires can savage areas we believed to be safe (rightly or wrongly), what else can happen? For those of us prone to anxiety, as well as all of us who have learned to disaster-think situations from a risk management point of view, we are confronted with a myriad of new worries.
Even if we think that we should not feel anxious, disturbed or upset by events happening in our world that may not directly affect, these feelings are real. Feelings are not “wrong”, and we need to acknowledge what we are feeling without judgment. Ignoring your feelings doesn’t make them go away—it just drives them inward and may also make those of us who are hard on ourselves (aka almost every lawyer) even harder on ourselves.
We are also distressed about what people in the line of fire, so to speak, are experiencing. This is because of empathy, a uniquely human trait (or so we seem to believe), which allows us to understand and share the feelings of other people.
Remember that Assist’s professional counselling program is available to support you through this period of increased anxiety. Sometimes it is helpful to talk through why a situation that is not directly impacting us causes an emotional reaction. We can learn from what we are feeling, and we can learn strategies for keeping our fears at bay.
You are welcome to use Assist’s free counselling sessions proactively. Research shows that the earlier we confront an issue, the more easily the issue can be resolved. This concept shaped Assist’s vision:

If events in our world are ratcheting up your stress level, please call our counselling office at 1-877-498-6898 to schedule an appointment. Please remember that we offer 24/7 crisis counselling with a senior Registered Psychologist as well, so if your feeling of stress escalates to distress and then to crisis, we are here for you. We don’t have a scale for evaluating whether you are technically “in crisis” using an objective tool, so if you feel that you are in crisis, please call—same number, just follow the prompts to be connected to the counsellor’s cell phone.
And if you are feeling dispassionate about the forest fires and evacuations, that your capacity for caring about the situations of other people has been used up, you may be experiencing burnout. Burnout is prevalent in our profession, unfortunately. According to the National Study on the Psychological Health Determinants for Legal Professionals in Canada, more than half of Canadian lawyers who participated in the study have experienced burnout.
Lawyers are a skeptical population, so I prepared the chart below to reflect only lawyers and articling students as the National Study also included Quebec notaries and Ontario paralegals.

  Lawyers Articling Students General Population
Major depressive disorder 28.6% 43.6% 15%
Generalized Anxiety Disorder 35.7% 49.8% 13%
Suicidal Ideation 24.1%
(Since beginning practice)
(Since beginning their practice)
(Through their lifetimes)
Psychological Distress 57% 72% 40%
Burnout 55.9% 62.9% Not stated

You can also attend free Psychological First Aid webinars provided by Alberta Health Services.
Assist offers Psychological First Aid training focusing for lawyers periodically. If you are interested in attending a customized Psychological First Aid session, please let us know—if there is enough interest, we can organize a session quite quickly. Please email
Helping others who are experiencing crisis not only benefits them—it also benefits us Engaging in acts of kindness reduces stress, increases happiness, reduces blood pressure, reduces pain, boosts health and increases longevity.
Many organizations are seeking donations to support evacuees who have arrived in Alberta:

I am grateful for the memories and photos I have from Lahaina and the West Okanagan. While I have feelings of loss, I also have feelings of gratitude for happy times spent in beautiful places. This will help me commit to support rebuilding in those communities. The 150-year-old banyan tree is scorched but alive. Like the banyan tree, we may be scarred by what life throws at us, but we can survive and grow stronger.
Please don’t dismiss your feelings of anxiety and uncertainty in the wake of devastating forest fires and distressing world events. Counselling, psychological first aid, expressing gratitude, and acts of kindness can all help. And if you are a person who has been impacted by a direct loss from the fires or are supporting friends or family who have been evacuated, your feelings of loss, grief and stress are important. Please let us help.