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Fire Ignites a Support System

 By Marion K. Jacobs, Ph.D., Special to the Independent

I was among the lucky ones. The fire was coming over Mystic and straight at us on Temple Hills Drive when we evacuated, but thanks to a wind switch later our house was saved.

Over the days and weeks following the ’93 Laguna fire, I got to know many people devastated by seeing their homes go up in flames. Dazed, disoriented, struggling to find their footing in a new and frightening reality, it became apparent to me and other Laguna mental health professionals that they needed psychological help but nothing much was available either through the Red Cross or from the county to help them through that terrible time.

Given the desperate need, a small group of licensed psychotherapists met, decided to offer free help, and to recruit other therapists to do the same. Thus Psych Support was born, led by me, Karen Bohan, Carol Lindquist, Susan Jacob, Sheila Diskin, in coordination with the amazing Marsha Bode, who was forming the Laguna Resource and Relief Center at that time. Our mission was to provide immediate free mental health assistance to the community and be available in times of future natural disasters.

We began by running support groups for those who had lost their homes. For me, working with people after such a disaster was a deeply touching personal learning experience. For some, losing a home to fire can be totally disorienting to the point of driving somewhere but not knowing where you are or how you got there.  Or needing underwear and ending up in tears in the store, too anxious and confused to decide which item to buy.

Any crisis— fire, flood or earthquake—besides the immediate loss it causes, also tends to stir emotions from unrelated traumas in the past. The result is negative emotions so intensely awful people feel they must be losing their minds. In fact, these are normal, predictable reactions to an abnormal situation, but try helping your children deal with losing everything when you can’t eat or sleep and are flooded with anxiety.

Step-by-step though, people in the Psych Support groups helped each other pull through. I still run into some of them in town and they still comment on how important those groups and our being there for them were.

Hot Santa Ana winds in October still give me a creepy feeling, so I’ll close this on a practical note. Since the fire, I keep a box with some grubby clothes and a few photos in the trunk of my car in case of an emergency departure. I also learned what to grab and what to leave behind if there ever is a next time. Forget the meaningless stuff. The bottom line list that I learned from the support group is four Ps: pets, prescriptions, photos, important papers, along with your computer or backup.

Of course let’s hope it never happens again.

Dr. Marion Jacobs is a practicing psychologist in Laguna Beach and an adjunct professor at UCLA.

Photo by Mitch Ridder

The former mobile home park in Crystal Cove State Park was hard hit by the ’93 fire, which destroyed 44 homes there.

 

 

 

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