In the Shadow of the Witch Creek Fire

In the Shadow of the Witch Creek Fire

At the end of World War I, a young French mother packed all she owned, including a crock full of long-handled oil paint brushes in a steamer trunk. She was starting a new life in America with her infant and husband, who was an American sailor. Sadly, the young mother became ill and perished on the journey. She never made it to America, but her small family and the crock full of paint brushes did.

That baby girl was my Aunt Lillian and the young woman’s husband was my grandfather. Years later, when I became an artist, my aunt entrusted me with these heirlooms for safekeeping. For decades those brushes had held the essence of my aunt’s mother and her story; they served as a bookmark in time. It could be said that “things” hold the loved one themselves- their smell, their touch, and in the case of my brushes, wood blessed with the marks of a teething infant. In my home the antique brushes were displayed in a place of honor.

In 1998 our family’s Poway home suffered a devastating interior fire that destroyed two-thirds of it and much of the “stuff ” we had acquired as part of our lives. When a home is lost in a fire, the survivors often hear from well-meaning friends, “oh well, it was just stuff.” But often the “stuff ” we hold onto is the keeper of someone’s life story.

In a larger way, the home itself holds the lives of its people and its character takes on the patterns of the inhabitants. And over time, we naturally develop relationships with our homes.

Our first fire was difficult, but there was no question that we would rebuild. Four years later, in the 2003 Cedar Wildfires, the same home was burned to the ground and this time the fire took everything, including the heirloom oil paint brushes.

I was bitter. We had been through devastation by fire once already. In good faith, we had picked ourselves up and rebuilt. To have our house burn down a second time was against the odds. I felt double crossed by Mother Nature. We lost beloved pets and our newly rebuilt home. Selfishly, I was most bitter about having to rewrite my master’s thesis on Expressive Arts Therapy. Yes, I had “back up” discs. They had been in the house right next to my laptop.

This time my husband and I weighed the emotional and financial consequences of rebuilding. We waded through the confusion and inconsistencies of our insurance company, the Fire Department and the City of Poway. Each organization’s “policy” seemed to alter daily in the midst of such a widespread calamity. In 2005, we finally moved into our new home. It was bittersweet at best, but we were back.

Then a year and a half later, the dreaded reverse 911 call came with orders of mandatory evacuation; the Witch Creek Fire was approaching. Luckily, we found our home had been spared this time. As the firemen labored to contain the fires, I felt a deep compassion and empathy for what I knew the survivors of the 2007 Wildfires would have to face in the year to come.

Within a week after our evacuation, art therapist Kat Kirby, artist Jane LaFazio, and I knew we wanted to do something to help the women who lost their homes in these fires. We developed a free “Women’s Fire Survivor Support Group,” using expressive arts as the portal for healing the emotional trauma that is held in the body.

In this kind of situation, traditional therapy can fall short. The expressive arts such as drumming, painting, movement, sand tray therapy, collage, and poetry are especially effective in giving form and expression to the thoughts, feelings, and body sensations that trauma holds. When given shape through the arts, these feelings can then be seen outside of the body and therefore, become more approachable.

While feeling deeply displaced, it is crucial for fire survivors to find a neutral zone in which to feel safe. Through art-making, they step over the threshold of harsh every-day reality into creativity and play. When the art-making is complete, the group reflects on what happened. They find that their initial feelings, often full of restrictions and road blocks, have opened to new possibilities, options or insight.

This free “Women’s Fire Survivor Group” has been a safe place to create a network with others who are going through the same grief and loss; it is a place that gives space and time for participants to realize and voice their true feelings, which have often been set aside or unacknowledged as they stay strong for their families or face the insurance companies.

In the gentle but powerful ways of expressive arts, these amazing women have been able to slowly re-member their lives and find resources that are helpful. The healing found in walking through grief in a conscious way is life-changing. In doing so, trust in Mother Nature is mended. Old oak trees, loved gardens, wildlife, and pets that perished are mourned. Through time, meaningful “stuff ” like handmade Christmas ornaments, baby pictures, wedding albums, Grandmother’s rocker, family recipes or even a crock of heirloom paint brushes are acknowledged and released; only then can a new life fully begin.


  1. Reply

    Hi, Pamela – I just read this essay for the 1st time. I am deeply moved by the flow of this story – its powerful beginning of hope and loss, the historical family connection, and then your own story of hope and loss, hope and loss, bitterness, and then a turn to compassion, community, and a path of shared healing and renewal. I know I have heard parts of this story more than once by now, but somehow did not connect the pieces into a coherent story, your story – my mentor’s story. Perhaps it is because I have been so consumed by my own loss of home and family history. Now I am beginning to understand: our lives, our losses, our stories, are connected in ways we do not see, connected by the larger forces of history, nature, time, and culture. And it is through our own efforts to bring into consciousness our own relationship with what the world has given us that we heal, grow, and become ready for what lies ahead.

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