Wildfires 2007

Editor’s Note: Today’s Chiropractic LifeStyle reader and San Diego County resident, Dr. Steven Wachs submitted the following personal account of the 2007 wildfires.

As wildfires began to place many areas of San Diego County under siege last October, heroic local firefighters, CDF personnel, military serviceman and emergency services began battling what would quickly surpass the 2003 Firestorm as the most devastating wildfires in the history of California. Many experts believe that such blazes will become a regular part of life in Southern California because global warming is intensifying nature’s cycles by lengthening fire seasons and prolonging droughts in parts of the West. However, nothing can prepare you for the fires that turned San Diego County into a disaster zone during the last week of October. As wildfires raged across Southern California, we were faced with a very graphic representation of what many had been predicting since the last fires, and it affected those who live in these neighborhoods, very directly and personally, as well as the county as a whole.

As fires erupted throughout the region on Sunday evening, Oct. 21st, no one could say with certainty which neighborhoods were safe and which were in jeopardy. Many residents took the necessary precautions based on the last set of fires. Based upon previous experience, the chiropractic community knew that those battling the wildfires would need care. Fighting wildfires is an exhausting task, with firefighters working endless shifts and countless hours, the availability of chiropractic care would be a vital necessity to many.

As I drove home Sunday afternoon from a wedding in Newport Beach with my wife, the scene became eerily similar to 2003, and we feared the worst. Strong, relentless Santa Ana winds, very dry and unseasonably warm conditions, and visibility becoming an issue heightened our concerns. As day turned into night, dark smoke continued to pour in from the east as we arrived in San Diego County. The darkening sky blackened quickly, obscuring any moonlight, and there was a very real sense that impending danger was on the horizon.

By Monday morning it was evident that this firestorm was going to require a monumental effort before it would be contained. Most of the community sat glued to the TV and news websites, riveted by bits and pieces of information from different news agencies in search of something new about their neighborhoods and the people close to them. Then on Monday evening we got the phone call, a Reverse 911. We evacuated immediately, finding refuge with our neighbor’s parents’ place along the coast. The hard, dry wind continued blowing ominously from the east, and by Tuesday a haze had spread over every neighborhood, rich, poor or otherwise. The oppressive smoke carried a message to this sprawling region of around three million, even if our homes were spared there was a concern for our community. Schools, offices and businesses were closed, leaving parents and kids wondering what to do. Plays and concerts were canceled, along with organized sports. Postal service was disrupted and many banks were closed. Most freeways were strangely clear; streets in downtown San Diego were quiet; and cars packed with keepsakes and important household papers lined residential streets from Eastlake and La Mesa to La Jolla and Rancho Santa Fe as evacuees from suburbs to the north, south and east bunked with family and friends. Most everyone would soon know somebody who either lost a home or was forced to evacuate after getting a rare phone call, the Reverse 911. Within the first several days the huge Witch Creek and Harris fires, along with smaller blazes, quickly consumed about 1,300 homes and other structures and scorched about 300,000 acres, displacing half a million people potentially in their path.

Upon returning home I packed up my gear and headed for the main staging area at Gillespie Field in El Cajon. Being familiar with the location this time around, I headed straight for the makeshift treatment area adjacent to the large tented food court. Upon arrival I was very pleased to be joined once again by a colleague and Los Angeles College of Chiropractic classmate, Dr. Marc Lewis. Several massage therapists were already set up and the firefighters coming off the line, as well as those just coming into town after long journeys, were lining up for treatment. As the day wore on, the demand for chiropractic treatment was nonstop. The physical and emotional demands of battling these massive wildfires took its toll on the firefighters. Many entered base camp physically and emotionally fatigued, with sore, tired muscles, suffering from numerous strained joints and mechanical dysfunction. The postural correction, improved motion, nervous system relief, and energy restoration that the chiropractic adjustments can provide was just what they needed. Never have you seen a more grateful group of patients! Whether it be the grizzled veteran commanders or the young rookies battling fires like these for the first time, the response to our care was overwhelming.

By Wednesday evening firefighters began to finally gain the upper hand with the firefighting effort in full swing. Fire crews were arriving on a continuous basis from all parts of Orange and Los Angeles counties, northern California and the Western states. We treated emergency personnel from Arizona, Colorado and as far away as Washington State, Oregon and Idaho! With the arrival of additional elite strike teams, experienced fire crews and the vast increase in air power, the spirit among everyone was greatly lifted. “There are still fires burning, and there’s still danger,” County Supervisor Ron Roberts said, “but it’s the first good day.” “We’ve turned the corner,” said Ron Lane, director of county emergency services. The region’s five major fires had burned 327,000 acres and destroyed or damaged more than 1,500 homes by Wednesday evening. Officials expected the numbers to rise as updates rolled in. About 400,000 people were still evacuated from their homes, down from a high of 560,000 on Tuesday, officials said. The largest fire, the 198,000-acre Witch Creek fire in northern San Diego County was still expected to meet up with the parallel-moving Poomacha blaze. The Rice Canyon fire had burned 9,500 acres in the Fallbrook area and was only 20 percent contained. Camp Pendleton firefighters battled several blazes, and the Poomacha fire had spread across 35,000 acres after starting on the La Jolla Indian Reservation. In southeastern San Diego County, the 75,000-acre Harris fire was moving through remote forest areas by Wednesday afternoon. Air tankers dropped fire retardant at midday to try to halt the spread farther into the backcountry. The Harris fire was still only 10 percent contained, with full containment not expected until Sunday. On Thursday, Oct. 25th President George W. Bush arrived in San Diego. He met with firefighters and toured many of the devastated areas, offering words of support and hope to those who lost their homes. Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger was a regular presence on the ground during this crisis, touring damaged areas, visiting shelters like Qualcomm Stadium, and lending encouragement to those at the base camps.

By the weekend, containment of the fires improved and the mood of the emergency personnel at Gillespie Field signaled a huge sigh of relief. The feedback from the firemen was tremendous; they could not have been any more appreciative and gracious that chiropractic care was made available to them. While many had received the benefits of chiropractic adjustments before, there were quite a few emergency personnel who received chiropractic care for the first time. Being able to provide spinal and extremity adjustments, myofascial release and stretching techniques lessened the impact of sore and tired muscles, restored vertebrae back to their proper position and alleviated nerve pressure. Thereby many, many firefighters, who were sleeping in tents and on cots or sleeping bags, were able to obtain a much more restful sleep; and many for the very first time experienced the powerful impact of specific chiropractic adjustments to restore motion, improve overall function and to alleviate pain. By Monday Oct. 29th most schools re-opened and there was talk of the recovery to follow as firefighters continued to work on fire containment, and the county got a welcome breath of fresh air as onshore air flow helped clear out some of the lingering smoke from the fires. By the next day most of the wildfires were well contained and the majority of our work had been done. It was truly remarkable to see so many of the firefighters, who had been treated for the very first time come back for a second and third time for adjustments, and so returning on a daily basis! It was a distinct privilege to serve once again alongside Lewis and several other colleagues, including Christina Sanchez, D.C., and Matthew Hubbard, D.C.

It was truly an honor to be able to contribute in a small way to this large effort. This opportunity to provide care to those heroes who sacrifice so much and take the risks they do, has truly reminded me once again why I am so proud to be a part of the chiropractic profession. Once again the chiropractic profession answered the call, by being on the front lines right away, providing relief and essential care to those who put themselves in harm’s way.

Dr. Steven M. Wachs, D.C., of Chula Vista, Calif. is a Certified Chiropractic Sports Physician (CCSP), Qualified Medical Evaluator (QME) and Independent Medical Examiner (IME).

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