Medicine for the Outdoors
Medicine for the Outdoors

Dr. Paul Auerbach is the world's leading outdoor health expert. His blog offers tips on outdoor safety and advice on how to handle wilderness emergencies.

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A Man to Admire

Because of the recent wildfires in southern California, I wrote a post recently with fire survival advice, based upon the excellent recommendations of my friend Marty Alexander.

I just received a poignant and inspirational reminder from my good friend J.T. Geehr about the human impact of such a cataclysmic event. It is about her father, Bob Hayes, who was forced to evacuate his home just before it burned to the ground. The message is very clear that because of the difficult circumstances we sometimes face in life, there is always need for love and the human spirit. We should never forget the human impact – that wilderness medicine is first and foremost about people - and that each and every person has an important story. Here goes:

“I owe all of you a huge thank you for your touching expressions of sympathy last month after my mother died. I am lucky to have such kind and caring friends. My father misses her very much, and still muses about her great beauty. He recalls the way she looked when she was a 21 year-old bride, and still swoons. We should all be so lucky!

Last Sunday, October 21, I went with my father to mass, and then shared lunch. We talked about a lot of things, in particular his home. I spoke with him about the option of moving to a senior facility, so that if he needed help, it would be available. But he told me he prized his independence and loved his house, and wanted to stay there until it was no longer physically possible to do so. So we began to plan a decorating scheme - he asked me to help make his decor a bit more current. As I left at 3 PM, the smell of smoke permeated the air. I checked on the radio, and discovered that there was a fire in the mountains - Dad said it was far away. The relocation center for the evacuees from that fire was in Poway, close to Dad's house. We didn't feel he was threatened, so I returned home. All evening I checked online for the status of that fire, but all of the coverage that I could find was about Malibu, where another fire raged.

My father was awakened by a phone call at 4:30 AM Monday. One of his friends asked him if he was awake. In typical “Dad” fashion, he answered "Hell, no!" His friend then told him to look outside, because the news was reporting fire in Rancho Bernardo. He looked out his back window and saw that his trees were ablaze, with the wind whipping them wildly. He put on pants, shoes and a shirt, grabbed 2 photo albums and a portrait of my mother, and ran to the garage. When he opened the garage door to leave, he saw flames racing across his driveway. He took off as quickly as his car would allow him, through the flames, in the dark. Confused, he drove to the Rancho Bernardo Inn, parked, and went to the bar. Not surprisingly, there were no other patrons in the bar at 5 AM, so he played a game of pool by himself! A hotel employee came in and told him that they had evacuated a couple of hours ago, and he'd better get out of there ASAP. He went back to his car and tried to drive back home to check on the house. Not an option. He tried to drive to my sister’s house. Not an option – her neighborhood was being evacuated. He then began his drive to my house - ordinarily about an 80 minute drive. He called me at noon from the Border Patrol office on Highway 5; he had stopped there to nap in the car, and when he awoke and tried to drive, his parking brake was stuck. He was there another hour, waiting for assistance from AAA. During that hour, he enjoyed the hospitality of the Border Patrol, while he held them spellbound with his tale of escape. He finally arrived at my house at 2:30 PM, looking like he'd been through hell. But that was just the beginning.

We were unable to get any current information about the status of his neighborhood that entire evening. Every Internet news source sent us to the Google Earth link, which had a lovely aerial picture of my dad's house in perfect condition. For a while, we believed it might possibly have been spared. But it didn't make sense. I checked the posted list of destroyed homes, and looked at the Google image for a "destroyed" neighborhood; it, too, looked perfect. His city councilman's website promised to have an official list of destroyed homes up by 2 PM on Tuesday. We couldn't get through to it until 4 PM, but then it was official - Dad's home was destroyed.

It is hard to understand where this man is getting his strength. He battled cancer two years ago, and buried his wife less than two months ago, but his spirit is truly inspirational. He has shed some tears - mostly from being touched by the kindness he has received. A barber gave him a free haircut, and it brought tears to his eyes. When we went to Nordstrom to get him some clothes, they gave us a free lunch. That brought more tears. When the insurance company told him they were sending him $5,000 to get him through the immediate expenses, he choked up and told the agent, "You people are so wonderful." But other than a few times that he has let down and wept, he has been making the most of what anyone would agree is a devastating circumstance. He says that now he gets to start over, at 87 years old! He has found a residence and will move in next month. He is going to visit my sister in Hawaii in two weeks - we got him new clothes for that journey, and he's so excited about the new sandals.

Rather than dwell on the difficulties ahead, he has been giving thanks for his safety, for his kids, his friends, his relatives, and yes - the kindness of strangers. All of my life, people have told me what a great guy my dad is, and of course, I agreed. But I didn't really understand why he was so great - he was just great. He was 'The Tiger.' This episode has illuminated for me what makes my father the recipient of so much love and admiration. He is upbeat and grateful. Every act of kindness to him is unexpected and appreciated. He has lost every single possession he had, every piece of memorabilia that he has collected over 87 years, and yet, he is trying to make the best of each day. Having tuned 50 last month, I sort of thought that I had life all figured out, that I'd learned all there was to learn. Living through this ordeal with my dad has taught me that I'm just beginning to get the picture.

Thanks for taking the time to read this. Your good thoughts and prayers are appreciated. This is far from over.”

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About the Author

Dr. Paul S. Auerbach is the world’s leading authority on wilderness medicine.