Guerneville fire heavily damages medical center

Fire officials said a blaze that caused major damage to the clinic that serves 3,500 people was suspicious.|

Patients trickled in throughout the day to see what was left of the Russian River Health Center after a suspicious fire ripped through the Guerneville clinic in the wee hours of Saturday morning. Overwhelmed by the damage, they offered their condolences and support to clinical staff, who spent most of the morning after Christmas rummaging through the charred remains in search of equipment and other items that could be salvaged.

'It's shocking looking at it,' said Dr. Michelle Davey, a primary care physician and medical director of the clinic's HIV program. 'You just feel blown away.'

The fire started outside an elevator shaft and spread to the attic and roof, said Monte Rio Fire Chief Steve Baxman, who responded to the call around 2:30 a.m. The medical center, which serves about 3,500 patients, was heavily damaged.

'It was all over the attic,' Baxman said about the fire. 'We had to get into the crawl spaces.'

There were no fires stops in the attic, which allowed flames to spread quickly through the top of the two-story building on Third Street, said Capt. Travis Wood with the Russian River Fire District.

'Most of the roof was gone,' he said.

The ceiling above the main lobby also collapsed, Baxman said. However, the building was empty at the time and no injuries were reported.

While many of the rooms remained intact, Wood said they suffered heavy heat, smoke and water damage. He said the fire caused an estimated $500,000 damage to the building alone.

Baxman said medical and lab equipment were ruined in the fire, which could cause the figure to rise.

'It's more than likely that it'll go way up,' Baxman said. 'They (medical staff) have to do a complete inventory.'

Mary Szecsey, executive director of West County Health Centers, which oversees the center, said they were able to recover vaccines and medications. While some equipment was damaged, she said patients' records are fine. They're maintained electronically at a data center in Sacramento, she said.

'I've never been through something like this before. We're just trying to take it all in,' said Szecsey, who was notified about the fire by a maintenance worker. He was contacted by the security company after the fire triggered an alarm.

Szecsey and Davey arrived around 4 a.m. 'You still could see smoke and little flames on the top of the roof,' Szecsey said.

Fire officials still are investigating the cause of the blaze. Baxman said it's being considered suspicious.

'It was definitely human-caused, but we don't know if it was intentional or unintentional,' Wood added.

More than two dozen firefighters worked to extinguish the flames and prevent them from spreading to nearby businesses and homes. Baxman said the fire took more than an hour to contain.

Eight engines responded, including from the Russian River, Monte Rio, Graton and Forestville fire protection districts, the Occidental Volunteer Fire Department and Cal Fire.

The possibility that the fire could have been set deliberately perplexed officials with the West County Health Centers. They've been part of the community for four decades — three of those at the Third Street location.

'This was our main clinic for a long time,' said Jennifer Neeley, the agency's fundraising manager.

The center, which first opened in 1974, provides medical services to 3,500 residents from the Guerneville and lower Russian River area, Szecsey said. More than 300 patients come in for HIV services, she said.

While it remains uncertain whether they'll have to rebuild or just repair the clinic, Szecsey said patients don't need to worry. They will be sent to the medical group's Sebastopol locations, she said. Employees already were making calls to patients Saturday morning to notify them about the fire, Szecsey added.

"We're not going anywhere," Szecsey said, adding that the agency has two emergency trailers that could be set up to treat patients in Guerneville. 'People still need us.'

Patients without transportation will be treated at the dental clinic across the street from the Guerneville health center, Neeley said. She said they'll keep people updated through their website,

Davey said she's amazed by the community's resilience and support. Many of her patients stopped by, offering to help raise money and rebuild, Davey said.

'We're doing everything in our power right now to return to full function,' she said.

You can reach Staff Writer Eloísa Ruano González at 521-5458 or On Twitter @eloisanews.

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