Healers Offer Firefighters Free Massage and Acupuncture. And They're Loving It

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Dan Cortright relieves tight knots in Truckee firefighter John Farrell's shoulders at the Sonoma County Fairgrounds. (Lesley McClurg/KQED)

Healers Offer Firefighters Free Massage and Acupuncture. And They're Loving It

Healers Offer Firefighters Free Massage and Acupuncture. And They're Loving It

The volunteer response to the wildfires in Sonoma County has a distinctly California flavor. Thousands of alternative-medicine practitioners like naturopaths, chiropractors — even aroma-therapists are donating treatment to anyone affected by the fires.

Sessions happened at dozens of pop-up spas in parking lots, relief centers and emergency shelters during the brunt of the disaster. There are still about a half a dozen open.

At one Red Cross shelter on the Sonoma County fairgrounds, a young man lays down on the gym floor with a blue towel under his head. Amidst a cacophony of evacuees calling friends and family, a sound healer kneeling on a silk Asian blanket begins ringing quartz bowls arranged in a semi-circle. The therapy is intended to calm the patient’s frazzled nerves.

Tuning forks radiate the sound from quartz bowls to help calm the nervous system. (Lesley McClurg/ KQED)

Outside under a red and white striped plastic tent, a group of firefighters and national guardsmen wait patiently on folding metal chairs.


Jamie Sheppard, a Truckee-based firefighter is next in line. He's beat after shouldering a 60-pound back for grueling 24-hour shifts over the past 10 days.

“My neck hurts, my back hurts, my left shoulder hurts," says Sheppard. "And breathing in a lot of smoke of course, the lungs hurt."

He climbs up on a massage table and a therapist gently places her hands on his temples. After twenty minutes of gentle massage and Reiki, a Japanese technique for stress reduction and relaxation, Sheppard slowly rises to stand up.

Firefighter Jamie Sheppard receives energy work, or Reiki, after numerous long shifts on the front lines of the North Bay fires. (Lesley McClurg/ KQED)

“I feel much, much more relaxed," said Sheppard. "Looser and nimble.” This is his second massage in a week. He says it doesn’t just help his body. “It also just kind of helps you unwind and power down and get ready for the next day."

But it’s not just the firefighters who are working long hours. Dan Cortright is a volunteer who has offered massages for about ten hours each day for six days in a row.

Sweat drips down Cortright’s forehead as he digs his elbow into the back of a burly national guard soldier. Cortright says he's volunteering to show his gratitude to the emergency responders. “It's the least I can do to pay them back for all they’ve done to save our town, our whole community.”

A few blocks away stacks of donated boxes of herbs and healing remedies are arriving from all over the country to Farmacopia, an alternative healing clinic in Santa Rosa. Lily Mazarella, the owner, says she can't keep up with all the shipments.

"We've gotten everything from organic mushroom powder for the immune system to homemade osha syrup for respiratory distress to to big bottles of sleep syrup," said Mazarella. She gave a lot away last week at another pop-up clinic nestled beneath huge trees, Alliance Redwoods Conference Grounds, about thirty minutes east of Santa Rosa.

Helicopters circled above Alliance's blue basketball court that was lined with massage tables until Sunday. A few hundred firefighters stayed at this facility between shifts.

Volunteers handed out “Manzanita Magic” – a folk remedy for poison oak. A white plastic table was lined with tinctures and syrups for respiratory support, stress, sleep and immune support.

Some firefighters sniffed essential oils like eucalyptus to soothe their smoke-filled lungs. Or drank throat comfort tea to ease raspy coughs.

Firefighters inhale the smell of eucalyptus oil to soothe dry smoke-filled lungs. (Misha Miller)

Jen Riegle helped to coordinate shifts at more than two dozen shelters throughout Sonoma County. She’s a naturopathic doctor in Santa Rosa. Riegle says she’s truly touched by the feedback she’s received.

“There have been so many soldiers and firemen and evacuees who have told us that they’ve never, ever received this kind of work before!" Riegle exclaims.

A Facebook page about the volunteer effort now has more than 2,000 members, and a website to keep the momentum going recently went live. Riegle hopes the outpouring of support can become a model that’s easily replicated when disaster strikes another community.