El­derly res­i­dents hard hit as fire’s fury sends them flee­ing

The Mercury News - - Front Page - By Katy Mur­phy kmur­phy@ba­yare­anews­group.com

They pounded on her door and told her she needed to go. It was Tues­day af­ter­noon, the fire was get­ting close, and the manda­tory evac­u­a­tion or­der had come down.

“I said no,” said Mary­jane Holmes, of Santa Rosa.

Like so many of the el­derly who came to this Wine Coun­try par­adise to re­tire, Holmes found the trauma of be­ing forced from home as in­tim­i­dat­ing as the on­com­ing flames. On Thurs­day, she will wake up on a cot in the Sonoma County Fair­grounds — to cel­e­brate her 77th birth­day.

“It’s over­whelm­ing,” she said Wed­nes­day, af­ter shar­ing the story of how two to­tal strangers con­vinced her to leave — 17-yearold Turner Welch and his dad, Carter, fire evac­uees them­selves. The two had learned that there might be peo­ple in the Ben­nett Val­ley apart­ment com­plex who couldn’t get out on their own, so they went door to door, search­ing for peo­ple like Holmes, who uses

a wheel­chair.

They found her and at least four oth­ers who needed help, in­clud­ing a neigh­bor of Holmes who is blind. The fa­ther and son squeezed peo­ple, wheel­chairs and cats in their two small sedans, whisk­ing them from their homes to the fair­grounds evac­u­a­tion shel­ter.

Santa Rosa’s old­est res­i­dents, evac­u­ated from their neigh­bor­hoods or the area’s large se­nior cen­ters, filled the shel­ter Tues­day, try­ing to stave off anx­i­ety, dis­com­fort and bore­dom as they waited for the his­toric fires to flame out. But across Wine Coun­try, oth­ers weren’t so lucky. Charles and Sarah Rippey, mar­ried 75 years and in­sep­a­ra­ble, died at their Napa home be­fore they could es­cape, un­der­scor­ing how vul­ner­a­ble the firestorm left those who planned to live out their lives in this haven among the vine­yards.

The area of Santa Rosa hard­est hit by fire is home to many such se­niors, who oc­cupy an area along the city’s Foun­tain­grove Park­way filled with vil­lagestyle retirement com­plexes, mem­ory-care fa­cil­i­ties and a se­nior mo­bile home park.

Even for those who did es­cape the flames, like Holmes, the un­cer­tainty and sud­den­ness of their flight pose a set of daunt­ing chal­lenges, from how to fill pre­scrip­tion med­i­ca­tions left be­hind in their haste to es­cape to cop­ing with the thought of los­ing their home — and with it, a life’s worth of posses­sions — to be­ing sud­denly thrust out of their daily rou­tine, leav­ing them alone in an un­fa­mil­iar en­vi­ron­ment.

“I live alone. It’s quiet. I’m a happy her­mit,” Holmes said, look­ing around at the con­stant stream of vol­un­teers and evac­uees milling among the cots. “I’m not able to ac­com­mo­date what my body needs.”

In Sonoma and Napa coun­ties, which have suf­fered the brunt of the death and de­struc­tion wrought by the fires rag­ing across North­ern Cal­i­for­nia, roughly 18 per­cent of the pop­u­la­tion is older than 65, higher than the statewide av­er­age of 13.6 per­cent. The sunny, tem­per­ate weather, lovely vis­tas and wine cul­ture that pulls so many tourists to the area also draws in re­tirees. Some live in fancy neigh­bor­hoods, while oth­ers, like Holmes, live in low-rent apart­ments or as­sisted-liv­ing fa­cil­i­ties.

“I’ve al­ways loved it here,” said Carl Loft­house, 67, who about two years ago bought a mo­bile home in Jour­ney’s End and moved from Pleas­ant Hill, where he had lived.

His house, and those of his neigh­bors, was in­cin­er­ated by the Tubbs fire that swept through Santa Rosa early Mon­day morn­ing, while most peo­ple were asleep. The storm forced evac­u­a­tions in Spring Lake Vil­lage, one of the largest as­sisted-liv­ing com­mu­ni­ties in the area, as well as four Oak­mont Se­nior Liv­ing cen­ters in Santa Rosa.

Now, like so many oth­ers who had come to live out their retirement dreams in Wine Coun­try, Loft­house will be forced to re­build.

First, the Illi­nois na­tive will go to Chicago, where one of his daugh­ters lives, un­til ev­ery­thing “set­tles down.” He hopes that won’t be for long.

“If ev­ery­thing pans out, I’ll be back,” Loft­house said. “Why would I want to put up with win­ters back there?”

Of the 450 peo­ple who slept in the Sonoma County shel­ter Tues­day, roughly three-quar­ters are se­niors, es­ti­mated Jim Bray, the shel­ter’s as­sis­tant man­ager. A num­ber of as­sisted-liv­ing cen­ters in the Bay Area, in­clud­ing ones in Oakland, Concord and Al­bany, have taken in hun­dreds of fire evac­uees. Three buses came Wed­nes­day morn­ing to take roughly 100 se­niors to a cen­ter in Oakland, Bray said.

The large room at the fair­grounds was filled with olive-green cots, Amer­i­can Red Cross blan­kets and vol­un­teers such as June Tay­lor, 72, a psy­chother­a­pist who came to the shel­ter to talk with the dis­placed. With­out a rou­tine, and with ru­mors fly­ing about the con­di­tion of their homes, she said, “They’re anx­ious of­ten and they’re con­fused — they don’t know what’s re­ally hap­pen­ing.”

“Of­ten­times their friends are gone and their part­ner may be gone, and they’re alone and they’re fright­ened,” she said. “It’s a very chal­leng­ing sit­u­a­tion for them.”

Holmes said she ex­pected to cel­e­brate her birth­day Thurs­day in the shel­ter — with her new friends, the Welches, who re­turned Wed­nes­day morn­ing to keep her com­pany, a prom­ise they made as they urged her to leave the com­fort and fa­mil­iar­ity of her home.

They promised to bring her cup­cakes.

“There are an­gels all over the place,” she said.

“They’re anx­ious of­ten and they’re con­fused — they don’t know what’s re­ally hap­pen­ing. Of­ten­times their friends are gone and their part­ner may be gone, and they’re alone and they’re fright­ened. It’s a very chal­leng­ing sit­u­a­tion for them.” — June Tay­lor, 72, a psy­chother­a­pist and vol­un­teer

JANE TYSKA — STAFF PHO­TOG­RA­PHER

Mem­bers of Cal Fire mon­i­tor a wild­fire in the hills north of High­way 29 above Cal­is­toga, which was evac­u­ated Wed­nes­day as the fire ap­proached.

KARL MON­DON — STAFF PHO­TOG­RA­PHER

Carter Welch and his son Turner visit with Mary­jane Holmes on Wed­nes­day at an evac­u­a­tion cen­ter. The Welches helped Holmes es­cape.

KARL MON­DON — STAFF PHO­TOG­RA­PHER

Jonathan Beene, of Alameda, vis­its his 90-year-old mother, Rose Beene, at a shel­ter in Santa Rosa af­ter care­givers res­cued her from her se­nior care home.

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