Wildfire spares therapy ranch but leaves anxiety about the future

SANTA CLARITA, Calif. — When the Tick Fire raced across the desert hillsides of this rural community 45 miles north of downtown Los Angeles at 1:30 p.m. on Oct. 24, scorching the dried out vegetation as it went, Jane Wick and her husband, Steve Nelson, were settling in for an afternoon nap.

—AR produced by Henry Keyser and Rebecca Corey

Nelson’s niece, who lived a few miles away, called in a panic, waking them.

“She said, ‘There’s a fire racing up the hill behind your house,’” Nelson, 70, told Yahoo News. “I ran into the bedroom and I looked out the window and all I could see was flames leaping up 10 or 15 feet.”

Stepping outside, they saw just how precarious their situation was. Flames were bearing down on the Denim ’n Dirt Ranch, where Wick, a clinical psychologist, practices equine therapy, a therapeutic practice utilizing horses and miniature donkeys to treat mental issues including stress and depression.

A scene from the Tick Fire, Oct. 24, 2019. (Photo: Hans Gutknecht/MediaNews Group/Los Angeles Daily News via Getty Images)

Like so many Californians traumatized by wildfires over the past several years, they were surprised by how quickly the flames reached their home, even though Southern California Edison had cut power to the region hours earlier in anticipation of high winds, and Wick and Nelson had prepared themselves for the possibility of fire.

“The air felt odd,” Wick, 67, said. “I felt anxious and I’m usually not anxious,”

While the animals on their property were safe for the moment, Nelson believed time was running out. He loaded five of his dogs into his car and drove them to his niece’s home, leaving Wick behind to open the gates to the horse and donkey enclosures to give them a chance to escape.

“There was no way I was going to let my animals die like that,” said Wick, who had worked with some of them for the last 15 years. “I let the donkeys loose hoping that they could save themselves. That’s all I could do.”

Jane Wick at the entrance to Denim 'n Dirt Ranch. (Photo: David Knowles/Yahoo News)

By the time Nelson returned, thick black smoke was rising from the home across Baker Canyon Road from their own, and two more houses bordering the ranch had also caught fire.

“I don’t know if it’s denial or faith or what, but I had a sense that our ranch would not burn,” Wick said. “At the same time, I was scared to death.”

Nelson was less optimistic.

“I did not have the same confidence that our ranch was going to survive when we left,” he said. “The last time I saw it, I basically said goodbye.”

Equine therapy

While human beings have recognized the physical benefits of riding horses as far back as 400 B.C., it wasn’t until the 1700s that contact with the animals was viewed as a bona fide method of treating conditions like depression.

Wick, who has practiced equine therapy for more than a decade and splits her practice between a Pasadena office and Denim ’n Dirt, has no doubt that using the animals pays dividends for her patients.

Two miniature donkeys at Denim 'n Dirt Ranch. (Photo: David Knowles/Yahoo News)

“People come here who are significantly depressed or troubled in life or anxious or [have] relationship problems or whatever it is,” Wick said while standing in a dusty paddock with a half-dozen miniature donkeys, some of which are less than three feet tall. “When they work with the horses and the donkeys and myself and my equine clinician, their lives literally change.”

In part, that’s because of what she’s able to glean from watching her patients interact with the two dozen equines on the ranch.

“There’s a basic psychological concept called projection. A perfect example: What if I said to you, ‘Oh, that donkey right there is really enjoying this filming.’ That would be my projection, right? We don’t know if she is enjoying it,” Wick explained as two miniature donkeys nudged into her hip for attention. “It immediately tells me what my patient is actually thinking. With metaphor, it circumvents the unconscious, so you get a lot more of the unconscious more quickly with this kind of work.”

‘Fire season anxiety is real’

As Wick and Nelson know from their own experience, many Californians have begun thinking more and more about wildfires in recent years. As climate change has raised summer temperatures, power company infrastructure has fallen into disrepair and a population priced out of urban areas has moved into more fire-prone areas, the state is facing a new reality that can turn hellish in an instant.

By the standards set by infernos like 2018’s Camp Fire in Paradise, Calif., which burned 180,000 acres and 18,000 structures, leaving 85 people dead, the Tick Fire was a modest blaze, burning a mere 4,615 acres and destroying 26 structures. Still, as it raced across hills covered in brush and tall brown grasses, 40,000 residents in the Santa Clarita Valley were evacuated.

The Tick Fire. (Photo: Hans Gutknecht/MediaNews Group/Los Angeles Daily News via Getty Images)

Wick and Nelson were left in suspense for hours over the fate of their ranch and animals. But when they were finally allowed to return, they discovered what they consider a small miracle. The fire-blackened ground seemed to draw a perfect border around the Denim ’n Dirt ranch, leaving their home and animals unscathed. As if sensing where safety lay, none of the donkeys or horses left through the open gates.

“It’s beyond mysterious why the ranch survived. It came very, very, very close. It was surrounding the house completely,” Wick said.

Asked whether she believes equine healing magic saved the day, she laughs.

“I don’t even dare postulate. That would be too much hubris, in a sense. I’m just going to say is I don’t know,” Wick said.

A home and vehicles destroyed by the Tick Fire. (Photo: David Knowles/Yahoo News)

Even for those lucky enough to escape the yearly onslaught of wildfires with their lives and homes intact, a deep anxiety lingers about the future.

“Fire season is going to trigger people, including me,” Wick said. “Fire season anxiety is real, I have some of it myself, so I’ll be working on it myself, which I think will help other people to work on it.”

Her anxiety is visible as she surveys the blackened field that abuts a donkey enclosure.

“Honestly, to talk about this again kind of makes me this jittery self again, that trauma stuff,” she said, then reaches down and strokes one of the donkeys. “This is a perfect example. She’s here and these little ones are surrounding us and they’re comforting me quite a bit.”

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