Five months after the catastrophic Camp and Woolsey wildfires tore through more than 250,000 acres in Northern and Southern California, life and work are far from routine for dentists who lost their practices or homes — or both — in the fires. But many are beginning to find some semblance of daily structure and make long-term plans with the help of their colleagues and the dental community.
Funds made available through the CDA Foundation’s Disaster Relief Grant have also assisted dentists and their dependents and staff. The first grants reached qualifying applicants affected by the fires in early December 2018, and the last of the grants were disbursed in April, bringing the number of individuals who received emergency funds to 64 and the total dollar amount awarded to $395,000.
Seventeen dentists and 47 dental-office staff are among the grant recipients, and the majority of them were living or working in or near Paradise, Calif., when the Camp Fire destroyed most of the town.
One of them is Chico-native Jeremy Chatfield, DDS, whose day on Nov. 8, 2018, began almost like any other. He and his wife noted the “dark red glow” in the eastern sky in the early morning, but because fires were not a wholly unfamiliar sight in those Sierra Nevada foothills, Dr. Chatfield made the roughly five-minute drive to his practice to see his first patient.
Forty-five minutes later, however, that distant red glow turned to an all-pervasive black and the warning texts and calls started coming in. Chatfield, his staff and his patient were soon out the door, heading to their homes to begin evacuating along with thousands of other residents.
Meanwhile, about two miles north of Chatfield Dental Inc., another grant recipient, W. Ron Wilson, DDS, had just finished a bridge impression at his practice on Skyway Drive when his wife called to tell him that a fire was in the area. She wanted him to come home.
“There’s always a fire out there,” Dr. Wilson recalled saying before continuing with his busy morning. But his wife called back with a more urgent plea just as others began to sound the alarm, so he alerted his staff and patients and closed the office.
“As I was trying to drive through town to get home, it came to me — we are going to lose this town. It was dark as night outside.”
Both dentists’ practices were destroyed by the fire, as was the house Chatfield shared with his wife and three young daughters. Two dental hygienists and one dental assistant in Chatfield’s practice also lost their homes to the fire, while a third hygienist still remains evacuated from her partially standing home.
“It was a pretty devastating time for all of us,” Chatfield said.
Wilson’s home is on the southern edge of town and was spared by the fire, but nearly all of his staff were less fortunate.
“My staff scattered. They’ve been living in multiple unfortunate situations that are gradually improving,” he said. One of his hygienists is now living on Wilson’s property. “It’s been very helpful to have the extra cash from the grant to supply my needs and to help with my staff’s needs too.”
Wilson is now practicing in a retired endodontist’s office with equipment that was loaned to him. He’s reduced his hours because his commute time has more than tripled, but he says he’s surprised at how busy he is. Some of his staff have joined him, one of whom also works reduced hours due to an even longer commute.
“Basically, I am surviving due to the generosity of friends,” Wilson said. “And TDIC is taking care of me – they paid out the limits on my equipment loss promptly.” For now, he says he has an adequate amount of patients but is looking to buy or lease a building, “probably in Chico, possibly in Paradise,” with space for a five-operatory office.
Chatfield used funds from the Foundation grant to secure a temporary rental accommodation in the Truckee area for himself and his family.
“It allowed us, especially my daughters, to get away from the smoke, away from the chaos,” he said. “There was a lot of trauma – emotional trauma and psychological trauma. It made a huge difference to not have to wake up every morning just to see and breathe in that smoke.”
The arrangement also made it easier for him to travel once or twice a week to work out of a dental practice in Chico owned by Brian Lange, DDS.
Dr. Lange had received regular updates about the fire from one of his own staff whose Paradise home was destroyed in the Camp Fire. Because he knew Chatfield and his brothers years ago when they lived in Chico, he reached out directly to offer the use of an operatory and all of his equipment.
“We just wanted to offer this opportunity so they could keep their patients as they tried to work through everything that was going on,” Lange said. “It was such an unprecedented situation to try to adapt to.” He credits his staff. “They’re the ones who did the hard work to make it all happen,” he said. “I was just able and happy to offer the space.”
Chatfield said he had “multiple calls” from dentists in Oroville and Chico, which was largely the work of Vi Gilbert, executive director of the Northern California Dental Society. Gilbert said the “outpouring of support from fellow dentists” allowed her to coordinate available operatory schedules for Paradise dentists.
“I’m grateful for how generous Dr. Lange and all of these dentists were for taking in Paradise dental offices, letting their patients come in and being willing to take emergency patients for us when we’re off work trying to figure out home and insurance issues,” Chatfield said.
Chatfield’s staff who lost homes applied separately for the Foundation grant. One put the funds toward a travel trailer that she and her husband eventually moved to their old Paradise lot. Another who had to abandon her car during the evacuation was able to put the funds toward the purchase of a car for transportation around Chico, to get to work and to take her children to school.
The grant was open to eligible dentists, dental assistants, dental hygienists, dental-office staff, lab technicians employed in the dental field and CDA component dental society staff. The Foundation considered applications for any eligible individual whose home or dental practice was destroyed or severely damaged as well as for displaced individuals and those who lost dental-related equipment.
“Many who suffered significant losses in these disasters received considerable help made possible by individual contributions to the grant from dentists as well as by CDA, TDIC and associations, including the New York State Dental Association and the Filipino Dental Practitioners of California,” said Ron Mead, DDS, CDA Foundation chair.
Grant recipient David Pokras, DDS, practices at Southern California Endodontic Group in Simi Valley. Days before the Woolsey Fire jumped Highway 101 and destroyed his home, he had offered it as temporary shelter for staff who were affected by the less destructive Hill Fire.
“I wanted to make sure they were taken care of,” Dr. Pokras said.
But soon he was implementing his own evacuation for himself and his family.
In the days following the disaster, including two weeks spent at a hotel, he did not miss a day of work, saying it was a good escape from everything else that was going on.
“I was just washing my scrubs in the bathtub at the hotel and hanging them out to dry. We were in survival mode, getting things for the kids and other needs taken care of. Dentists and friends dropped off blankets, gift cards for meals – I was really touched by all the help,” Pokras said.
He credits his office manager, Marie DeWeese, for finding out about the Foundation grant and obtaining the application. “It was so unexpected and I didn’t anticipate it. Being underinsured on my home, every little bit helped.”
“The grant made a huge impact in a lot of people’s lives,” said Chatfield, who will soon relocate with his wife and children to Idaho. The TDIC policyholder also received a payout, to his policy limits, for the loss of his practice and equipment. He’s now shopping for a new practice — ideally an existing one, rather than building one from scratch.
“These are just examples from my office, but I know there were many more people who went through the same thing and received the grant and additional support from dentists who gave what they had to bless others,” Chatfield said.
According to Dr. Mead, the Foundation strives to help members and other dental professionals as individuals. “We have several programs to help specific groups such as new dentists, but this grant was a program for everyone,” he said.
Donate to the CDA Foundation Disaster Relief Grant or learn more about Foundation programs at cdafoundation.org.
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