December 15, 2017 / 11:06 AM / 6 months ago

No place like 'Om': Ojai retreats keep their zen in California fire

(Reuters) - No one would blame Tim Hall if, as co-director of a meditation center in Ojai, California, he lost his zen when one of the state’s biggest ever wildfires devastated the property last week.

The Thomas Fire that has raged through Ventura and Santa Barbara counties for more than a week destroyed more than half of Meditation Mount’s gardens and a two-story residence and knocked out the electricity, he said.

But Hall kept calm even after most employees fled on Dec. 4, two days before members of the public were expected to arrive for meditation.

“It’s kind of a miracle that it didn’t all go up in smoke,” Hall said of the center atop a hill in the picturesque Southern California city.

“We also feel tremendous gratitude for what we have left because a lot of people have nothing left,” added Hall, who said the center may not reopen for another three weeks.

Meditation Mount is one of several resorts or retreats forced to close in and around Ojai, a city of 7,400 people on the southern edge of the Los Padres National Forest about 83 miles northwest of Los Angeles. Some may know it better as the place where the cast of “The Real Housewives of Beverly Hills” raced golf carts and visited a mud-filled spa.

Ojai, nicknamed “Shangri-La” after a mythical Himalayan utopia, narrowly survived total destruction from the Thomas Fire, which surrounded Ojai Valley at one point.

The fire has blackened more than 368 square miles (953 square km), an area larger than New York City. More than 700 homes have been destroyed and more than 94,000 people displaced. [nL1N1OD0X5][nL1N1OE15D]

“We’re going to get through this,” Kathy Hartley, who owns Lavender Inn, an Ojai bed and breakfast that has hosted yoga retreats, said by phone.

When she drives into Ojai from Ventura, where she lives, Hartley said she instantly relaxes.

“It’s the strangest thing. I have an ‘ah’ moment,” Hartley said. “I just feel like I let go of any tension in my body.”

“It has this zen feel. That’s kind of why people come,” Hartley said.

The Ojai Valley Inn, which offers a spa, yoga and other activities, had a voice message telling potential clients that it was closed.

“As you may be aware, Ventura County and the Ojai area is currently under a state of emergency with wildfires burning in our local mountains,” the message said. The inn’s website said it will reopen Jan. 11 after restoration and cleaning.

The Oaks at Ojai, a spa and wellness retreat, evacuated 10 guests on Dec. 5 to the Ritz-Carlton Bacara, Santa Barbara, retreat spokeswoman Karen Gee-McAuley said in an email.

About 12 guests at the Ojai Retreat left by Dec. 4 and others canceled reservations, said director Ulrich Brugger. Although it is now open, there are no regular guests, and he estimated about $30,000 was lost in cancellations.

At Hall’s meditation center, he and a maintenance contractor remained until Dec. 5 to fight spot fires on the bucolic, 33-acre property. But they fled in two pickup trucks when the fire got too close and the wind too strong.

Meditation Mount opened in 1971, and someone had meditated in its meditation room every morning until the fire, Hall said.

“It’s always nice to keep a tradition going, but it’s something we couldn’t avoid,” Hall said. “We’ll start it up again.”

Reporting by Suzannah Gonzales in Chicago; Editing by Ben Klayman and Cynthia Osterman

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