California Burning… and Healing

By Carla Cassler - April 3, 2018
AWB volunteer Rhonda Epstein treating evacuees in Southern CA

By Carla Cassler, Associate Director of Acupuncturists Without Borders, with Melanie Rubin, Associate Director of Acupuncturists Without Borders

Last year, California experienced the most devastating wildfire season in its history: over 9,000 distinct fires across more than a million acres with billions of dollars of damage and dozens of lives lost. In October 2017 alone, 250 fires just in Northern California devastated almost 250,000 acres and killed 44 people. December brought a new series of fires to Southern California, including the Thomas Fire in Ventura County, forcing almost a quarter of a million people to evacuate. The people of California are still reeling from this devastation, which has now contributed to lethal mudslides.

Acupuncturists Without Borders: Providing Relief in Disaster Zones

Over the past decade, hundreds of California acupuncturists have been trained by Acupuncturists Without Borders (AWB) to provide trauma relief and recovery treatments in communities affected by disasters like these. Once the fires began in mid-October, AWB volunteers sprang into action.


I didn’t know
the crickets were still singing
that the sky could still be blue
that walking near sweet pines
could be an act of liberation

I didn’t know
the edgy nervous tension
the quiet restless panic
the fear to sleep
could last for days and days

I didn’t know
the depth of our compassion
how the ties that bind strengthen
that tears could be shared with strangers
in a market
on a park bench
or in the morgue

I didn’t know that “It’s so humbling”
by only silence
could mean
“I’ve lost everything”

-by Amy Humz, LAc, resident
of Sonoma County and AWB
volunteer, who provided
trauma healing treatments in
her community after the
October 2017 fires

In Northern California, AWB staff worked with volunteers to set up over 20 clinics in evacuation and medical centers to treat evacuees, first responders, and other members of the community.  Clinic locations included Petaluma Armory National Guard, Santa Rosa Fairgrounds, Petaluma Veterans Center, Napa County, and the Permaculture Skills Center in Sebastopol.  AWB also partnered with the Integrative Healers Action Network of Sonoma to provide hundreds of treatments over a period of three weeks. One recipient’s account:

“Just had an amazing session in Sebastopol CA for the impact of the fires on our emotional health, our families and friends and our region! The fires in the area have had a tremendous impact on all of us here and I have felt absolutely awful emotionally and physically. I can breathe right again! I have never experienced that type of opening. The amount of stress and the trauma around us has led to some very strange days indeed and helping my family and friends deal with the evacuations and sense of impending doom has caused insomnia and stress. But this session was amazing! I felt so many sensations cut through many of the confusing thoughts and feelings funneling their way through me and there were even moments of clarity. I felt a great deal of release. Thank you!!! I can’t express this enough!”

The Role of Practitioners in Disaster Relief and Recovery

As is often the case when doing relief work in disaster and conflict zones, practitioners also receive healing and inspiration from the people they encounter and care for. This is from Catherine Herbin, AWB’s disaster relief coordinator for the Northern California wildfire relief effort:

“Helping to organize these clinics has been one of the most powerful experiences in my life. I now have a taste of the amount of teamwork, organization, resources, patience and improvisation that it takes to make it work! I’ve learned that disaster relief is never predictable and is a moving target. Although it was challenging to breathe the air, be amidst the chaos, and to witness the heartbreak, the change in people’s faces after they received treatment made it all worth it. I remember our clinic at the Petaluma Armory, in a huge building with tall ceilings, cots all in a row, the sun setting in a smoky sky out the massive door out back, looking at soldiers resting in a circle during their treatments, relaxing music playing, us volunteers looking around, taking it all in. I told one of the volunteers that this was one of the best moments of my life.”

The Northern California fires are out, but recovery for thousands of people will be long and slow. AWB continues to work with local practitioners to provide ongoing long-term services for people in fire-affected communities, especially those without legal immigration status or economic resources.

Though the California fire season usually ends by November, 2017 turned out to be different. Strong Santa Ana winds created multiple fires, including the Thomas Fire, the largest wildfire in California history. The weekend before the fires broke out, on December 4th, AWB had trained 80 acupuncturists at a Healing Community Trauma training in San Diego. Within several days, a group of newly trained practitioners set up pop-up clinics for local residents and first responders, including one in San Diego, two in Ojai, one in Ventura, and three for firefighters at the Ventura County Fairgrounds in collaboration with Chiropractic First Responders and Integrative Healers Action Network. In total, about 150 people were treated.

“I’ve been on the fire for quite some time and this is the first moment I’ve had to venture to the beach (where treatments were provided). The acupuncture/ear seed treatment helped me reach a point of relaxation I haven’t felt since I left home. Thank you so much for helping me get there. Bless you.”

-Captain Maggi Kouffeld, deployed from the Humboldt Fire Department, California

Finally contained in mid-January, the 6,000 or so firefighters deployed from Ventura County Fairgrounds to fight the Thomas Fire have been sent home. Now AWB volunteers are looking into opportunities for treating first responders where they are stationed, as well as additional possibilities for treating residents who were evacuated or lost their homes during the fires. At this writing, 17 people are missing due to mudslides secondary to the fires and many people have been evacuated from their homes. AWB volunteers will likely provide treatments for those affected.

“Doing these treatments felt very magical. As acupuncturists we go along and do what we do every day. When you suddenly have an opportunity to really connect with people and make an immediate difference where it’s needed, it is powerful. One of the most special moments was when I treated a firefighter who was obviously feeling the impact of the deployment. She completely decompressed during the treatment and I could tell that she was so touched. She went back and got a T shirt with her firehouse logo on it and gave it to me, apologizing that it smelled like smoke and needed to be washed. I told her I will never wash that shirt…”

-LeRoy Griggs, AWB Team Leader, Ventura County Fairgrounds

AWB would like to thank all the volunteers who have made these relief efforts possible, giving up their personal time during the middle of the holiday season. Special thanks to individuals and institutions like the Pacific College of Oriental Medicine who have supported these efforts by donating supplies and funding.

Featured Posts:

Carla Cassler headshot

Carla Cassler

Carla Cassler, DAOM, LAc, has practiced East Asian medicine since 1985 in the San Francisco Bay Area, and is currently AWB’s Director of Programs and Community Clinics. She has developed and coordinated field programs in Greece, Mexico, Puerto Rico, Israel, and Palestine, and is part of the AWB team that develops trauma-informed, integrative care training for acupuncturists, students, and other health professionals.

Is a Career in Acupuncture Right for You? Take The Career Readiness Quiz