Elderly residents hard hit as fire’s fury sends them fleeing
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
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
Members of Cal Fire monitor a wildfire in the hills north of Highway 29 above Calistoga, which was evacuated Wednesday as the fire approached.
Carter Welch and his son Turner visit with Maryjane Holmes on Wednesday at an evacuation center. The Welches helped Holmes escape.
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.