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District Branches in the News
Volunteer Spirit Spread as Fast as Wildfires
Psychiatric News
Volume 42 Number 23 page 2-2

The wildfires that swept through the hills and canyons surrounding San Diego in October left seven people dead and 1,800 homes destroyed, but the response was informed—and probably improved— by the lessons learned from an even larger outbreak of fire in 2003, said John Shale, M.D., J.D., president of the San Diego Psychiatric Society.

Perhaps 15 percent of the county's population had to leave their homes, including several of the society's members, he said. At least one member lost his home to the fire.

However, after the 2007 fire, society members, like other San Diegans, were ready to help when disaster struck.

"We didn't need to alert anyone," said Shale, a clinical professor of psychiatry at the University of California, San Diego School of Medicine, and an adjunct professor of law at the University of San Diego School of Law. "It was almost impossible to be unaware of the fire absent total paralysis of the olfactory nerve."

Individual society members volunteered services at some of the evacuation sites. Some of those were evacuees themselves, said Shale. The acute crisis was so short-lived that volunteers outnumbered evacuees on two of the five days that the main evacuation point at Qualcomm Stadium was open.

Shale was medical director for mental health services for San Diego County in 2003 (Psychiatric News, December 5, 2003). "The remarkable thing then was that evidence of PTSD was scant and almost always related to direct loss of home or a loved one," said Shale. "Given that fewer homes were lost and far fewer lives lost this time, I believe that even fewer folks will require more than very brief counseling."

Aside from people who lost property or were physically injured, most residents returned quickly to routine, said Shale.

One thing that hasn't happened since the 2003 fires is the inclusion of mental health care providers in advance emergency planning for the county, he added. Fourteen law enforcement agencies and at least as many fire agencies share responsibility for the region, and only hospitals with trauma centers were included in the planning process.

Future collaboration with authorities will likely be coordinated by the local medical society, Catherine Moore, M.D., public affairs representative of the San Diego Psychiatric Society, told Psychiatric News.

"Wildfires in Southern California are as certain as sunrise, though fortunately much less frequent. We were ready this time," said Shale." Next time, we shall be even better prepared." ▪

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