Fire destroys professor’s old neighborhood

Sarah Brewington | News Editor

Unaware and unprepared. Harbin Hot Springs in Middletown, CA., received the short end of the stick this month, as rapid wildfires spread through their neighborhood destroying the beloved community.

Harbin Hot Springs has been referred to as a hippie commune where people would retreat to enjoy the relaxing pools fueled by the hot springs and the clothing optional environment that elicited a peaceful communal way of living.

In 1992, Communication Studies professor at the University of San Diego, Thomas O’Rourke, moved to Harbin Hot Springs where he spent the next seven years becoming involved in the community.  

O’Rourke now lives in San Diego, but still has many friends who live in Harbin Hot Springs. He explains that he still knew many of the people that worked and lived at the Hot Springs.

“There were about 280 people currently [residing] and I probably knew half of them very well,” O’Rourke said.

O’Rourke explained that he works in marketing communications for Harbin Hot Springs now, which includes responsibilities from sending out a newsletter to hiring security. O’Rourke has been up to date with the situation and touched on how the community has been dealing.

“Just the last 24 hours has been especially tough,” O’Rourke said. “They are actually dealing with the situation rather well. I am really impressed with how well they are doing. For many of them they lost all of their possessions, then they lost their house or apartment or wherever they were living, that doesn’t exist anymore. Then they lost their job. Harbin, because it is burned, terminated everyone yesterday. Now they have no job.”

Harbin Hot Springs not only employed many people, it also served as a place of belonging. O’Rourke finds it disheartening that so many adults have lost their home.  

“The two things that really strike me now is that many of them have lost their place,” O’Rourke said. “As an adult you are attracted to move somewhere because of the place. They moved there for this place, and it burned down. They have lost their community; most people will be packing up and moving. Everything was taken from them, it is just shocking.”

The Harbin Hot Springs Health and Pleasure Resort was built in 1870. Spanning over 5,000 acres of land, the facility had many Victorian-looking buildings. Because of how destructive the fire was, many of these building were lost. O’Rourke hopes that the resort will recover in some form.

“It will never be what it used to be; there were old historic buildings and all of that is gone,” O’Rourke said. “Will it someday open up again? Will it come back in some form? Probably. But how long that will take and what that form will be I don’t know. I can’t imagine.”

While the Harbin community suffers, many neighboring communities have come to their aid. O’Rourke started a fundraiser with a couple of colleagues to help the survivors.

“I set up a fundraising campaign with one of the managers and so far we have raised more than $100,000 in PayPal donations,” O’Rourke said. “And that will go directly to the residents.”  

While Professor O’Rourke explained that help has been needed, he went on to say that there was nothing else that can be done right now. The residents have everything they need in terms of emergency supplies. O’Rourke himself will be going to Harbin next week to assist the residents and help them look for their lost possessions.

O’Rourke reminisced about the special qualities that Harbin had, in its heyday.

“It was a multi-million dollar retreat center but it still had the hippie flavor,” O’Rourke said.

“They were doing yoga there before everybody else was doing yoga. They were doing mediation before everyone else was doing it. It was a place where the children were born in tepees and had floral names. They hung onto the great things that came out of the 60s and 70s like better eating, holistic health and honest open communication. The guys had long hair and the women had peasant dresses.”

While much of the place is gone, O’Rourke and many of its residents still have the memories of such a sanctuary.

“It was a super beautiful place,” O’Rourke said. “It was a very meditative quiet world, a beautiful accepting place. Anyone could come there and be and feel okay.”

O’Rourke strongly advised organizations and institutions to invest in some sort of emergency plan, to avoid the frustration that the community members of Harbin endured.

While the fire has been 75 percent contained, the residents have lifetimes of ashes to comb through, in the hopes of discovering treasured keepsakes and beloved mementos.

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