By Camille Hoheb
Originally published in Massage & Bodywork magazine, March/April 2008.
Suddenly and swiftly, Southern California had the world’s attention as flames and smoke devastated lives, homes, and property. This was much more than a local event. When satellite photos showed behemoth clouds of smoke covering a large geography, one could better comprehend the far-reaching destruction of 17 simultaneous fires. Seven counties were affected. The October 2007 California wildfires dramatically touched an estimated 1,200 massage therapists—their lives, businesses, and clients— including those who share their stories with us here.
A Family Evacuation
Robyn Delagado, massage therapist describes how the fires impacted her directly: “We live in Rancho Bernardo about two miles either way from the major burn areas. We watched the fire on Sunday on the local news until about 2 a.m. At 5 a.m. our neighbor knocked on the door and told us it was time to evacuate. I gathered pictures and some other papers. I had received my paycheck on Saturday and put it on a shelf to deposit on Monday. As I was gathering my family—my husband, two kids, one poodle—I thought that I should bring my paycheck to deposit later, but I could not calm my mind enough to remember where it was. I made a few attempts, taking deep breaths, trying to focus. I couldn’t do it. The advice to post a list with items you would take in case of emergency is an important lesson. I decided to take my table and oils and some other things. My husband took our car and I took the truck. I was headed to Orange County to my sister’s house and my husband planned on staying in San Diego to work and stay with his mother. It took us six hours to make the normally 80-minute drive to Orange County. When I arrived, my massage table cover was black from the soot, but my table was clean.
“I work at Luminesse Medical Spa in Carmel Valley. During the summer we had set up a massage cabana on the second floor patio of our building. Although we had moved our services inside with the cooler fall weather, I still used the cabana to store several items, like pillow bolsters and table padding. When I returned to work, the patio was a black sooty mess. The foam padding was steeped in ash and the pillow was black. I asked when we would be setting up the cabana again, and that’s when I found out that the cabana had blown away. The last time it was seen, it was spotted on top of a tree in the adjacent parking lot. The spa was closed for a week. I lost that week of massage business, along with the following week’s income. So many homes were lost. I haven’t noticed people thinking of indulging in massage, although it would be helpful in reducing stress. In times like these, the stress immediately following the event is overwhelming. In Rancho Bernardo and Poway, the loss is great. I believe we witnessed a miracle in the safe evacuation of so many people.
“At my kid’s school, 60 kids’ homes were burned down completely. I am in awe that no one was harmed. There were so many families who left with flames at their doorsteps. I am grateful for all of the prayers and well wishing that brought our community out of this wreckage with life intact for most.”
Mueller College of Holistic Studies in San Diego provides educational programs in massage therapy and integrated bodywork. Although not directly affected by the fires, Mueller College was closed for a week and graduation ceremonies are rescheduled for October 2008.
Jeff Walsh, PhD, president of Mueller College shares their story: “Many of our students, faculty, and staff were evacuated from their homes and some for several days,” he says. “The college was closed for the week that the fires were at their greatest intensity. (We closed) because of the poor air quality, the many freeway closures and resultant traffic hazards, and the unpredictability of the fires that were approaching the college, fueled by 70 mile per hour winds.”
Walsh says none of the students, staff, or faculty was injured and none suffered any permanent physical loss. “Aside from a great deal of toxic ash removal, no damage was done to the college facilities,” he said.
The greatest toll taken by the fire storms is in the area of emotional distress, Walsh points out. “It goes without saying that those who lived in fear of losing homes and property—or worse—were anxious and depressed.” Many of the teachers, staff, and students came to mass evacuation areas to lend a hand to victims, overworked emergency personnel, and even anxious pets. “I am proud that they represented the college in such a positive light through their unselfish contributions.” Walsh said.
A Safe Haven
The Rancho Bernardo Inn is a luxury golf and spa resort in San Diego. Guests were immediately evacuated due to the encroaching wildfires. Initially the resort was transformed into a hub for firefighters, then a safe haven for displaced locals. General manager John Gates said the staff operated throughout the crisis, providing a place where first responders “could get a bite to eat, get cleaned up, and rest before heading out for another 12-hour shift.”
Spa manager Bree Lewis-Pritchard was in for a surprise the morning of Monday, October 22. She turned on the television and discovered the extent of the out-of-control wildfires. Living near the coastline, Lewis-Pritchard was not in danger. She called the Inn and learned overnight guests had relocated and emergency procedures were in place. She immediately called her staff to ensure that they were not trying to make it to work. This was during the peak of wildfire activity that resulted in closed roads and freeways while thousands of residences were receiving reverse 911 calls to evacuate. Although the property remained operational, the spa was closed until Friday of that week.
Laura Firm, a staff massage therapist at the inn, had never experienced a disaster that touched both her personal and professional lives. Her parents and grandmother initially sought refuge at Firm’s home during the wildfires, but within a day her family was forced to move again as blazes swept through nearby communities. “We evacuated around 7 a.m. on Tuesday, October 23rd. My parents originally brought their dog and cat to my house when they were evacuated. We took along my parents’ pets plus my own dog and we all stayed at my boyfriend’s house until Friday,” Firm recalls. “I was unable to go to work that whole week due to the power outage at the spa. It was not a relaxing time. It is difficult when you can’t go back to your own home, and I was worried my house would be gone. The air quality was very poor so we were unable to go outside and just about everyone went stir crazy.”
When Firm returned to her home it wasn’t damaged, but it was covered in black ash that continued to fall for a week. When asked what advice she would give to anyone facing a similar situation, she answers, “Be prepared. Try to remain calm. Have important items like medication, documents, foods, clothes, and photos packed and ready to go!”
A Student's Perspective
Amy Grady, a student at Mueller College and a resident of Scripts Ranch was given minutes to evacuate and found shelter at Qualcom Stadium for two days. Grady found herself helping others at Qualcom Stadium. The scene is something she’ll never forget. “I figure I was sleeping next to 20-plus horses for more than 24 hours with a tarp over my head and no running water and one potty. It looked like the Army was camping out with the cats—and the odor wasn’t that great,” she jokes. “I started working the Petco Zone. I would help those bringing in any kind of pet or livestock. It became my passion for those two days.”
After Grady was allowed to return home, she cleaned herself up, then returned to Qualcom to help for the rest of the week. Certified in trauma hand massage, Grady taught evacuees how to calm themselves through self-massage. “I taught people who had actually lost their homes and others who didn’t know if their homes were still standing.”
The challenge was not without its lighter moments. At one point someone brought 200 ducks into Qualcom. Grady was doing a television interview at the time. She took one look at the ducks, told the audience about their arrival and said, “We need kids’ swimming pools to put them in.” Within 10 minutes donations started pouring in.
Compassion and Gratitude
As residents piece together their lives and try to return to a more familiar rhythm, what is clear is that the blazes inflicted an emotional toll on Southern Californians. What is so striking in these stories and the interviews they stem from are the repeated themes of gratitude, compassion for neighbors, and the desire to help others.