Psychiatrist Clark Smith, M.D., and his wife, Kathy, went to sleep Saturday, October 25, unaware that their lives would be changed dramatically the next day. The Cedar fire 50 miles northeast of their home in Scripps Ranch, Calif., suddenly was racing toward the canyon where they lived.
"We knew something had changed because the sky was nearly pitch black, and the sun invisible. Ashes were raining down, and black clouds of smoke were blowing across the sky," Smith told Psychiatric News a week later.
The smell of smoke grew stronger, and it became hard to breathe. The Smiths decided to evacuate; they grabbed their most-prized possessions and headed to the garage. "As we piled into our cars, we heard the police and firemen in front of our house ordering everyone to evacuate immediately," said Smith.
"On the only road in front of our house, we sat bumper to bumper with our neighbors in an orderly retreat. Everyone looked shocked, yet no one honked or became aggressive. I was impressed with how considerate and supportive the community was," he said.
The Cedar fire destroyed more than 2,000 homes in San Diego County, including 350 in Scripps Ranch. Six fires, including Cedar, destroyed more than 10,000 homes in Southern California during the last week of October. About 20 people lost their lives.
Photos taken from the Smith home. Below: First sight of fire, safely beyond the 50-foot-wide firebreak. Above: A last glimpse. (Photos taken by Kathryn Smith)
When Smith learned that his home of 15 years was completely destroyed, he broke down crying. "However, I stopped ruminating about what might still remain of the house. I focused on constructive activities, including meeting with an architect to design a new home," he said.
The Smiths decided to expose their four adult daughters gradually to the total loss of their home. First, they drove by demolished homes belonging to their friends, then their neighbors, and finally their home. "It was tough for us to see our daughters picking through the rubble for any surviving items," said Smith.
John Allen, M.D., president of the San Diego Psychiatric Society, told Psychiatric News that when he saw the fire coming up the canyon in Blossom Valley, he and his family evacuated their home.
"As we drove away, we turned back and could see only billowing smoke and had no idea whether the house would still be standing hours or days from now. We were lucky that the house didn’t experience damage other than some broken windows and scorched earth outside."
However, the uncertainty of not knowing whether his house was still standing gnawed at him. "These fires were so huge, they surrounded the city of San Diego [see map]. The winds kept shifting so that one minute someone’s home was spared, and the next minute the fire returned and destroyed it," Allen said.
He and Smith both recounted waking up in the middle of the night panicked that some disaster might recur, and both said they experienced insomnia and anxiety.
Smith decided he was too distracted by what had happened to return immediately to his job as medical director at Sharpe Vista Pacifica Hospital in San Diego. So his colleagues covered for him in his absence.
Smith resumed seeing patients in his private outpatient practice within a few days of the disaster. "Because they are caring people, I knew they would ask how I was doing and whether my house had burned down. I decided to simply respond that I was doing fine. At the end of the session, I mentioned that I had lost my house in the fire and spent a little time discussing it. I didn’t want the session to focus on me," said Smith.
He was extremely grateful for the outpouring of support and sympathy his family received from friends, relatives, and even strangers. "Someone in my church volunteered to let us live indefinitely in their beach house. This was very generous, but it was an adjustment for us to be receiving rather than providing care," he pointed out.
He wondered how people coped who did not have home insurance or friends and relatives nearby to help them. "I was pleased that many of my patients with chronic anxiety disorders handled the emergency well and became more self-confident," said Smith.
He commended the American Red Cross for "being there in the trenches and finding those needy families and ensuring that they had places to go to, and their basic needs were met."
Smith is a member of the San Diego Psychiatric Society and is its public affairs representative. He contacted the district branch after the fire and asked for volunteers among the members to assist victims of the fires (see facing page).
"I realized that my family had lost its medications when we evacuated and anticipated that many other residents had too. I asked that members bring their prescription pads when they volunteered so people could obtain medications quickly," he noted.
Smith felt extremely fortunate that he had a homeowner’s insurance policy that would pay for rebuilding his home and a nice beach house in which to stay indefinitely. His district branch started a fund on his behalf to help defray costs not covered by insurance.
"I plan to make a donation to the American Red Cross General Fund and to a family who lost their home," said Smith. ▪