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Suncrest Place lauded for effective evacuation

Suncrest Place Assisted Living in Talent successfully evacuated all residents during the Almeda fire Sept. 8, 2020. As they left the parking lot, residents watched adjacent buildings taken by fire. Courtesy photo

After the Almeda fire struck the Rogue Valley, Suncrest Place Assisted Living in Talent stood out to firefighters and officials, both for its prominence as a standing building against a blackened and flattened backdrop, and for the effectiveness of its evacuation.

In preparation for evacuation planning month this June, Wildfire Safety Commissioner John Scarborough investigated the evacuation that kept 30 senior residents from harm — an example of successful “recursive planning,” he said.

Residents remain shocked there was anything to return to at Suncrest, where burn marks on the south side of the building and damage to the courtyard looked minor compared to the destruction that consumed the rest of the subdivision. Embers jumped over and through buildings and burned the courtyard between them.

Surrounded by defensible space and an access lane from a nearby street, residents and staff were fully evacuated within 90 minutes the afternoon of Sept. 8, 2020. Prior to the fire, Suncrest’s three-part evacuation protocol had been thoroughly reviewed and updated, taking changing conditions into account, Scarborough said.

Suncrest Place is owned by parent company Enlivant Senior Living, which is based in Chicago and operates facilities in 27 states.

Senior living organizations face different challenges providing emergency response and coordination depending on their location, whether dealing with wildfire, flooding, extreme weather or utility outages, said Dominique Meier, regional director of operations at Enlivant. In the Western U.S., “wildfires are a growing concern,” she said.

Meier said the company’s national reach strengthens opportunities to contract with partners that specialize in emergency transportation, medical supplies, food and water, temporary shelter and extra health care staff, who travel with residents during evacuation situations.

“We are vigilant. We prepare,” Meier said. “That preplanning and national infrastructure enable us to quickly address issues as they occur.”

A strong sense of community prevailed after the Almeda fire between residents, families and employees, and was shared across the organization through donations and support. The manner in which community leadership and employees responded exemplified inspirational commitment, compassion and selflessness, she said.

Meier highlighted Talent police for providing updates on the status of the building while the fire burned, and one officer for locating a resident’s cat and caring for the animal until Suncrest staff returned.

“This was the first time in 91 years that I had to evacuate, and it was scary,” said Suncrest resident Mary Lasely. “The fact that we got out at all was amazing, and the caregivers and staff did a great job getting us out. I wasn’t really scared until I saw the flames as we drove away.”

Lasely said returning to life as usual after the fire took time, and for a while she felt “adrift.”

Within an hour of Suncrest Director Teresa Selby’s call to Enlivant administration about the situation, 50 Medford hotel rooms had been reserved, three buses were ready to transport residents and her credit card limit had been increased to cover supplies.

Within three hours, Selby purchased critical medical supplies and resident assistance equipment. Over the next two weeks, Enlivant CEO Jack Callison raised $34,000 in a GoFundMe campaign for two Suncrest employees who lost their homes.

Sixteen residents went home with family and 14 were moved to a hotel near the Portland airport, then to Evergreen Place the following week, another Enlivant facility where residents lived until Oct. 2.

A staff of mostly 18- to 25-year-olds stayed with Suncrest residents throughout the evacuation, from The Expo to Evergreen Place — the most “defining feature” of Suncrest Place’s impressive response to the crisis, Scarborough said.

On Oct. 2, 2020, all 30 residents, four locals whose homes burned in the fire and the two Suncrest employees moved back into the building. Two former residents were moved to another Enlivant care facility due to overwhelming stress about the fire.

Enlivant supplied clothing and personal care items for residents and complete furnishings for their temporary apartments at Evergreen Place. Once the rush to move mattresses, bedding, chairs, televisions and towels into empty apartments calmed down, Evergreen held a welcome party with flowers for each resident when they arrived.

Resident Carolyn Chestnut said she felt comforted by the level of coordination between the Suncrest community and officials managing the situation. Jackson County sheriff’s deputies, animal control officers and Talent and Phoenix police assisted in the evacuation.

“I rode in a police car during the initial evacuation. Later that evening I watched the fire from the hotel room, and I am amazed that Suncrest is still standing,” Chestnut said. “I felt safe and secure once we were evacuated to Portland but was happy to go home.”

Resident Don Potter said donations of clothing and supplies were much appreciated and echoed a sigh of relief about his return home to Suncrest.

“While we are happy with the outcome, our concern is that kind of fire danger could be even worse this year,” Meier said. “Researchers at Oregon State University are warning conditions in 2021 could make matters worse. That makes our preparation and planning even more essential.”

An OSU study released April 26 found the conditions that drove last year’s disastrous wildfire season — high easterly winds, low humidity and extreme drought — are likely to repeat or worsen this year.

In three September days in 2020, fires from Clackamas County to Douglas County consumed about 11% of the Oregon Cascades.

“Based on current climate models, it does not look like the frequency or severity of easterly wind events will increase in Oregon due to climate change,” according to the study. “But forecasters expect that climate change will contribute to a trend toward increasing air dryness in late summer and early fall in the future, which is a cause for concern.”

According to an evacuation time estimate study by KLD Engineering, accessibility plays a major role in how efficiently an Ashland evacuation can occur if wind blows wildfire toward the city.

The study identified 16 neighborhoods in Ashland considered “access impaired,” 11 of which are outside city limits. The study recommends the city consider placing evacuation signage on Frank Hill Road, Ashland Mine Road, Granite Street, Ashland Loop Road, Morton Street, Terrace Street, Elkader Street, Highwood Drive, Pinecrest Terrace, Timberlake Drive, Emigrant Creek Road and East Nevada Street to show residents the way out.

“Given the extent of the area considered as access impaired, no safe refuge areas large enough to safely hold this many people, in a centralized location, could be identified,” according to the study.

Scarborough said citizens should not shy away from the reality of how difficult it may be to escape some neighborhoods in an emergency, but rather prepare themselves to react soundly the moment a Level 3 “Go!” order is issued. Ashland’s new evacuation zones and exit routes take transportation mobility considerations into account, such as background traffic, households without vehicles and nonambulatory patients who will require transport.

Zone maps on the way to every residence’s mailbox show feeder streets and central exit routes leading out of Ashland, “out of harm’s way,” he said. Scarborough encouraged residents to practice their route and implement simple preparation measures, such as asking a neighbor to get animals out of the house if the owner isn’t there.

More information can be found at ashland.or.us/evacuate.

Contact Ashland Tidings reporter Allayana Darrow at adarrow@rosebudmedia.com or 541-776-4497.