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CPR’s Trial by Fire

Trial by Fire

“Mandatory evacuation now!” the police commanded.

In my last 30 years working in addiction and treatment, I have seen my fair share of challenges. There have been cross country moves, changing facilities and staff changes that were really hard, but the last year has been extraordinary.

It all started in November last year when we moved the Center for Professional Recovery from Santa Monica to a new location in Malibu. Even though we were just moving a few miles up the road, moving is always moving. We started at the new location on November 1st and on November 8th, everything changed. A wildfire exploded 20 miles east and was heading our way fast. When it became clear it was coming and we might have to evacuate, I asked myself, how could this be happening? Could the program survive? Patients and staff had just made the transition from Santa Monica.

CPR got the order to evacuate during a morning group on November 9th. Everyone grabbed their luggage and patient files and piled into vehicles and headed out. We could see and smell the smoke and there was a sense of impending catastrophe. The Santa Ana wind was so dry, hot and blowing 60 miles per hour. There was no panic but everyone was anxious.

Pacific Coast Highway, the famous Hwy 1 along the beach, was the only way out and it was jam packed with cars fleeing southward. All we could do was get in line and proceed slowly toward safety, hoping we could get away before the fire came. On the radio, it was clear the fire was totally out of control. We talked about pulling over and running to the beach and even getting into the ocean if need be. Our staff and patients were all very supportive of each other. The adversity bonded everyone further.

It took five hours to go 18 miles to Santa Monica. This gave us time to make calls to other facilities to make arrangements regarding where to lodge everyone. We needed beds for 10 patients. We were very fortunate that a friend of one of our staff knew someone who had two sober living houses where there was room. We got a commitment and headed straight there. We were relieved to arrive at a safe haven. But it was very crowded that first night with some folks sleeping on couches. On day two after further calls, we found out that one of our staff had a friend that agreed to loan us a large house in Redondo Beach. So, on day two of this crazy adventure, we moved everyone further south. It felt like we were a nomadic treatment program.

Our second location turned out to be a very lovely house with a deck overlooking the beach. It was idyllic having groups on that deck. The recovering community rallied together in the South Bay area. Staff and patients began to explore great local meetings and we had speakers come visit. The professional staff who were not stuck behind the fire all drove to South Bay to conduct groups. My wife and I had been evacuated from our home as well and we stayed in a nearby hotel. It worked. We were able to keep the program going. Not only going, but spiritually and therapeutically sound.

After another couple of days, the Woolsey Fire ran its course. The CPR facility was dead center. Houses all around burned to the ground but the CPR facility was spared despite the fire burning shrubs and bushes right up to the house and blackened fields all around. The fire burned 96,949 acres and destroyed 1,643 structures and prompted the evacuation of more than 295,000 people.

It took another month before we could return to the CPR facility in Malibu. Upon returning, the devastation was everywhere. We were very grateful. We had not only survived but we had survived well and the patients had all benefited. It is satisfying to see the program continue to help people.

With things back to normal at CPR, I have decided to start a blog. This is something I have wanted to do for the past few years. The blog will focus on topics that I think are worth sharing regarding addiction and treatment, especially how it pertains to medical and other professionals. Consider this the first installment. I promise future articles will focus much less on wildfires and me.

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