On Sunday, Mary Stuart was wearing the same black pants she wore when she had evacuated from the Spring Lake Village retirement community five days previously.
“I didn’t have anything to change into,” she said while sitting in Barbara Bream’s apartment in Oakland. She did, however, find a purple shirt in a pile of donated clothes at St. Paul’s Towers, a fellow Episcopal Senior Community that had taken in Spring Lake Village residents displaced by the wildfires. Bream was one of a handful of Towers residents who had volunteered to house an evacuee.
Earlier that week, Stuart had woken up on Monday morning at 3:30 am to the sound of wind blowing outside. When she looked out her window and saw a line of cars driving down the street in front of her cottage, she knew something was awry. Then there was a glow towards Oakmont Village, a neighboring adult community. “Well, what can I do?” Stuart thought and went back to bed.
At about 6 am, an alarm that Stuart and her fellow retirement community residents had only heard during fire drills rang. This time the warning was followed by a different message: “This is not a drill.”
Stuart and seniors who were not in assisted living were rounded up by retirement center staff, put in buses and evacuated to the Sonoma County Fairgrounds, where they and other evacuees from the area slept on cots for two nights. “That was kind of wild,” she said. “They put up cots, three feet between.”
Across the highway, Village staff placed residents who needed medical assistance at the Santa Rosa Veterans Memorial Building. Stuart moved there the second night. “That was much cleaner and a lot nicer,” she said.
Spring Lake Village staff encouraged residents who could stay with family and friends to do so. Some seniors even got in their trailers and left for fire-free campgrounds. But after two days at the fairground, residents like Stuart who didn’t have a place to stay were sent to St. Paul’s Towers. Stuart was assigned to room 711 with Bream.
“They’ve been very good to us,” Stuart said with a Texas accent. “You begin to feel human again.”
A few floors up, Mary Anna Colwell volunteered to house an evacuee. When Betty Benson arrived Wednesday afternoon, Colwell insisted that she sleep in her bed. Benson did, although she said she felt guilty doing so—but not enough to keep her from sleeping through the night. Colwell slept in her living room on her chaise longue with a chair pulled in at the end.
“I was lucky enough to come here, and I was lucky enough to have her,” Benson said gesturing and smiling at Colwell. “This place has been incredible.” Benson was still wearing the white turtleneck and jean pants she packed in her go-bag before escaping the fire.
Both women said they were impressed by Episcopal Senior Communities’ quick action to evacuate residents and get them placed in new homes. “I don’t know how anyone could have been evacuated into a better situation,” said Benson.
But Benson and Colwell expressed concerns about the welfare of seniors who aren’t living in retirement communities. Already vulnerable in everyday life, Benson said, seniors’ aging bodies and minds slow their reaction times to situations like a fast-moving fire.
When seniors are not in a community, they’re lonely and unprotected, Colwell said. “The whole society is moving towards keeping older people in place,” Benson agreed, “and delivering services to them.”
Colwell nodded. “It encourages people to stay in their apartments and their homes much too late,” she said.
At a briefing, last Friday, in front of a packed room of Spring Lake Village residents, the executive director of Episcopal Senior Communities, Sharon York, said that so far there had been 18 fatalities due to the fire in Sonoma County. All of them were over the age of 55, she said.
“They don’t have any assistance in evacuation, they don’t have anyone waking them up,” said Episcopal Senior Communities senior vice president of organizational advancement Mary McMullin. Sitting on the 16th floor of St. Paul’s Towers outside the command center—a conference room the staff was using to manage the evacuations—McMullin spoke about the vulnerability of older adults who do not live in retirement or assisted living homes.
“They are on their own,” she said. “Even our residents found this fire to be confusing, disorientating, certainly uncomfortable. But they had people they could talk to every day.” As she spoke, residents and evacuees were beginning to walk to the elevators to catch happy hour. Most of them knew her. She waved, and they waved back.
One evacuee was John Norall, a former art director, who was hurrying to get a gin and tonic before the staff ran out. “We’re all like refugees coming out of the storm,” he said sitting next to McMullin.
Norall was bunking with four other men from Spring Lake Village. “It’s just like going into the barracks,” he said. “You feel very blessed, especially when you’ve been in a place like the fairgrounds, where people are coming in as individuals with no sense of where to go next.”
“When you are in a group like this,” Norall continued, motioning to McMullin and the command center, “you know that someone is doing the thinking for you.”
Norall had dinner plans that night with a woman who lives at St Paul’s—they had met in the 1950s. “That’s another chapter,” John said with a laugh as he got up to go. McMullin waved goodbye. “I think an emergency like this shows the value of community living,” she said.
But not all seniors evacuated by the fires were moved to homes like St. Paul’s Towers. Those not in assisted living centers who had no family or friends to stay with would have had to remain in evacuation centers like fairgrounds. Jacquie Robb, the Spring Lake Village chaplain, remembers how distressing the evacuation center was for both seniors in communities and those living alone.
Robb was evacuated from her off-campus home Monday morning. Immediately after she reached her friend’s house, she called the center’s emergency hotline and asked, “What can I do?” They told her to go to the fairgrounds.
“We talked to people and hugged people,” she said over the phone. “Some people thought it was a wonderful adventure.” Most residents were under the impression that they’d be home by nightfall. “The next morning people had not slept, they were cold,” she said. “The adventure had worn off.”
One senior woman who was overwhelmed by the event and was tired of the evacuation center left the grounds, seeming disoriented. Robb followed her and walked her around the building until she was able to get her to sit down. She listened to the woman tell the same story over and over again until the woman felt comfortable enough to return to the building. “Their dementia got worse because they were in so much stress,” said Robb about this woman and some of the other seniors she spoke with and observed.
As of October 17, the Tubbs fire, which sparked north of Spring Lake Village on Sunday night, had scorched over 36,000 acres. From west of Napa to the hills above Bennett Valley, the adjoining fires have burned nearly 102,785 acres. In the Sonoma Valley, around 5,000 firefighters have been deployed.
In California, the fall fire season can be the most destructive. Fires feed off vegetation dried up during long, hot summers and spread quickly with winds blowing in from the Great Basin. Combined with the fact that this past rainy season was ranked the second wettest by the National Centers for Environmental Information and the summer was the hottest on California record, fall wildfires had the potential to be deadly.
“The event was completely unprecedented in California history,” said Sergeant Spencer Crum of the Sonoma County Sheriff’s Office, speaking by phone.
On Tuesday, Spring Lake Village staff notified the seniors that independent living residents who do not have respiratory issues and can drive could return home today. The remaining independent living residents will be returning Monday.