By Steven Shirley, DC
ON AUG. 11, 2015, A DRY HOWLING WIND roared down the Cascade Mountains and slammed the parched interior of eastern Washington, bringing with it 60-mileper-hour winds and lightning storms spread across a 150-mile region. The drought of 2015 had previously broken every rainfall and temperature record in Washington history. Even the Olympic Peninsula, one of the rainiest spots on earth, had been struck with wildfires in areas that were traditionally mold and moss. And then the storm descended with a fury, and within hours dozens of wildfires ignited, spreading across the state into Idaho, Montana and southern British Columbia.
Local firefighting resources were quickly overwhelmed. Fire crews would soon arrive from such far-flung locales as Colorado, Idaho, Oregon, Alaska and even Australia. But initially, the fires raged out of control, and within days, the fast advancing flames overtook a scouting crew and three young firefighters, killing them while they tried to save people’ homes.
Watching the tragic situation unfold from our clinic in nearby Spokane, we saw days filled with smoke and dust. It was alarming to see the fires continue to expand, quickly burning more than 400,000 acres. One of my patients, a firefighter, came in for her adjustment and described how beat up the firefighters were. She told me that a chiropractor had shown up at fire camp with a table and a tent and treated dozens of the frontline folk. I immediately knew that we could do the same. I had read about the Carpenter Road fire near Lake Roosevelt burning down people’s homes and decided that is where I wanted to go.
Make Proper Arrangements
For obvious reasons, you don’t just show up at a fire scene with your table without calling ahead. We called the Department of Natural Resources and the Forest Service, and they politely refused our offer to assist. Not to be deterred, Amy, my back office CA, continued to make calls until we finally learned how to make the proper arrangements. Each fire has a public information officer who coordinates the logistical support to each camp and puts people in touch with the crew in camp. Amy found the public information officer, and I was in firefighter camp the next night.
I wasn’t sure what to expect, so I brought my wife, Kathi, (with an electric massager) for support, my Activator, SOT blocks and a borrowed massage table, and we headed two hours up into the woods. Over the next six-and-a-half hours, we treated an endless stream of very tired, dirty and thankful firefighters and their support teams. Many of the first wave had prior chiropractic experience and just needed an adjustment.
Once word got out about what we were doing, we had a steady stream of patients. It was similar to working a sporting event in that you had to triage the patient, explain your findings and then treat in a limited time. Firefighters are mandated to sleep a set number of hours, so we had to work quickly to help them all. Several skipped dinner and showers so they could get treated first. I treated about 40 people, including many women. Everyone loved the massages.
Many of the crew came in after dark, so having some source of light was essential. In our case, they had thrown a yellow tarp overhead and strung some outdoor Christmas lights. We were next to a small medical tent where a physician’s assistant from a local hospital volunteered between his shifts. The night before we arrived, a medicine man from the Colville tribe had performed a rain dance ceremony.
Treating the Hotshots
The most interesting crew to treat was the hotshots: the elite firefighters who came in around 10 p.m. The fire had jumped the front line the night before we arrived and was threatening the small town of Hunters. Fanned by another wind storm, two-inch flaming embers rained down on them as they scrambled with their gear to escape the suddenly advancing fire. Two miles back from the nearest road, they had to run to escape from the flaming projectiles. This crew used chainsaws, and all of them had upper-back, neck and shoulder issues. I used a drop board for some gentle shoulder adjustments with soft tissue work, which was greatly appreciated. While low-back pain was common, upper-back problems were more prevalent. This crew was finishing 14 straight 16-hour days while sleeping in a tent. Several fell asleep sitting in the massage chair.
The next weekend my business partner Jack Choate, DC, and a couple massage therapists wanted to help, so we called again to arrange a return trip. A new support crew was now on the ground, and they had no idea what to do with us. The fire crews rotate in 14-day shifts, and the last crew had taken down our tarp and lights, and we didn’t have any protection from the incoming rain storm. Fortunately, we had brought a stand-up tent to provide protection from the elements. Dr. Choate and the two massage therapists ended up treating a new crew of more than 75 people.
The rain dance must have helped because the incoming rain storm (the first since June) helped slow the flames. The Carpenter Road fire burned more than 65,000 acres, 42 structures and cost $20 million to put out.
Steven Shirley, DC, CCSP, owns Spinal & Sport Care Clinic in Spokane Valley, Wash.
DCs Helping Firefighters: Treatment Essentials
IF YOU ARE INTERESTED IN TREATING firefighters and their staff , be prepared for a fluid situation. Be flexible since you are a volunteer going to a mobile small town.
• Check online at http://inciweb.nwcg.gov to determine contact information. An official public information officer is appointed for each fire and will coordinate your efforts with the medical crew on location. The local medical director typically calls you back, although in our case, we had to call many times. Be persistent but patient. We talked to them numerous times on logistics before heading to camp. They allowed one member of our massage team to camp overnight so that she could treat the morning crew.
• Make sure you have power and some type of covering because fires tend to be in wild and windy areas, and most crews come in at night. We were in a dirt field, so there was no lighting except for what was provided. An extension cord was crucial, and we brought battery-powered lighting as backup.
• Be self-contained. Bring your own tent or awning. On our second trip, this allowed us to have three people treating and was our only protection from the rain. Make a checklist of items you’ll need on-site and bring them all along since you may be hours from a convenience store. We brought our own food and water, although we were offered dinner. Useful items include paper towels, hand sanitizer, power strip and extension cord, folding chairs and a small folding table. We also brought handouts on stretching exercises.
• From a treatment perspective, in addition to manual adjustments, doing low-force adjustments and myofascial release was helpful, especially for the chiropractic newbies. Many received their first chiropractic adjustment under the tarp by Christmas lights. Considering their fatigue level, my hands often told me more than their history. Be prepared to get dirty; your patients can be covered head to toe in grime.
• Take care of yourself. The adrenaline can run high and the treatment line long. Make sure you don’t hurt yourself if you are working on uneven ground with a flat bench table, which can make side posture adjustments difficult at times. Take a few stretching and PowerBar® breaks; time can pass rapidly due to the busy pace.