Vol 7. Issue 32 / October 29, 2007

California Campus Returns to Work After Fires

By Mika Ono

Scientists and staff at The Scripps Research Institute are getting back to work this week after the La Jolla, California campus was closed for three days due to the fires that ravaged San Diego County.

"Everyone pulled together during the emergency," said Douglas A. Bingham, Scripps Research executive vice president and chief operating officer. "I'd like to thank everyone for doing their part."

The campus was closed Monday, October 22 to Wednesday, October 24, as more than half a million people across the county were under orders to evacuate their homes and uncertainty reigned about the course the fire would take and the ultimate extent of the damage. Only those designated essential personnel were asked to report to work to maintain necessary functions at the institute.

By Wednesday, the Santa Ana winds started to relent, firefighters began to contain the flames, and many residents were allowed to return to their homes. The campus reopened the morning of Thursday, October 25. Employees still under mandatory or voluntary evacuation through the end of the week were not required to come to work, although they were asked to report to their supervisors.

The Scripps Research facilities sustained no major damage, although some buildings experienced power outages.

"We have a lot of cleanup work to do," said Ben Morris, vice president of facilities services. "We're disposing of branches that fell, removing ash and soot, and replacing the filters on building air handlers across campus."

Throughout the emergency, the institute's Florida facility continued to function as normal.

Poor Regional Air Quality

As California scientists and staff returned to work, members of the Environmental Health & Safety Department helped by fielding questions and offering safety tips, in conjunction with the institute's Occupational Medicine specialist, Dr. Stephen Munday of Sharp Rees-Stealy.

"Air quality is impacted in the region, but for people of normal health, there are no major issues apart from limiting vigorous outdoor activity," said Munday. "However, those with medical conditions such as cardiovascular and respiratory disorders, including asthma, should be more cautious. These individuals should follow their doctor's directions and be sure to contact their physician before changing or increasing medication."

Carolyn Keierleber, director of Environmental Health & Safety, noted she has been receiving questions about air quality, including complaints about woody, musty odors occurring in some of the institute's buildings. "A smell from a filter is of no consequence to health," Munday said. "An odor issue is not the same as a health issue." Keierleber added, "In general, indoor air quality will be significantly better than outside air quality. Also, air quality will be better in our buildings than at home, because of the institute's industrial-grade air handling systems."

To manage the poor air quality and residue from the fires that may linger throughout the region:

  • Curtail outside work as much as possible.
  • Keep doors and windows closed.
  • Pay attention to how you feel. "It takes days to get back results from an air test back," noted Keierleber. "Your most reliable guide on how to proceed is how you are feeling. If you are choking or getting asthmatic, you should not be where you are."
  • Avoid contact with the ash, as ash and soot can contain toxic debris from burnt plastics, paint, and automobiles.
  • Properly dispose of piles of ash around your home. Avoid blowing dry ash or hosing clumps of ash and soot down the drain. Instead, gently mist the ash before sweeping or shoveling to minimize airborne particles. Dispose of ash and other debris in a garbage bag with the trash.

Keierleber also reminds California employees that the campus's emergency hotline—(858) 784-7000—is available with a recorded message on the work status of the campus in any regional emergency. The institute's web site and email system will continue to be another source of information. A new emergency button for the institute's home page was created in response to the week's events, and will also be available in future emergencies.

Helping Hands

The impact of the fires on Scripps California employees has run the gamut. Some employees were ordered to evacuate from their home for several days. Some hosted refugees from the danger zones. Some had friends or relatives who suffered medical problems from the smoke or who lost property to the flames. Others were largely unaffected, enjoying strangely incongruent sunny weather and blue skies in parts of San Diego. As of this writing, Human Resources was not aware of any employees who had lost homes, although that may change as those most affected by the fires return to work over the coming days.

"I would like to offer my best wishes to anyone who has been affected by the devastating fires in San Diego County," said Judith Muñoz, vice president of Human Resources, "and to thank the entire TSRI community for cooperation during our closure."

Employees will be paid for the days the institute was closed due to the emergency. Time sheets should be marked "Fire Day" and questions should be directed to Payroll, x4-8087 or payroll@scripps.edu. The Open Enrollment deadline was also extended for three days to Wednesday, November 7, at 5 PM, Pacific time.

Jan Hill, director of the Counseling and Psychological Services Department, notes that the emotional toll of any disaster often continues for many weeks. "For many of us, the smoky conditions brought back memories of the devastation four years ago during the Cedar fire," she added, emphasizing that her department continues to offer free, confidential counseling for employees and their families. Appointments are available by calling x4-7297 or emailing hollyw@scripps.edu.

In addition, United Behavioral Health's toll-free help line at (866) 342-6892, open 24 hours a day, seven days a week, is available for employees coping with the emotional, financial, or legal consequences of the fires:

Another offer of help comes from Florida. The head of United Way of Palm Beach County, Scott B. Badesch, arrived in San Diego with a team to assist United Way San Diego and has inquired after Scripps California employees.

Many Scripps Research scientists and staff have also been inspired to lend a helping hand during this crisis. In addition to conserving water and electricity, employees can reach out to nonprofit agencies serving the San Diego region, including:

An extensive list of disaster relief information, resources, and volunteer opportunities can be found at the Counseling and Psychological Services Department website. ScrippsAssists, the employee volunteer group for campus, may also organize a disaster relief drive; to register to receive updates, go to the ScrippsAssists registration webpage.


Send comments to: mikaono[at]scripps.edu
















"Everyone pulled together during the emergency."

—Douglas A. Bingham