Hundreds of Sonoma County doctors, medical professionals displaced by fires

From a single photo, Dr. Patricia May and her husband, Jeff May, saw the scarcely recognizable remains of their Fountaingrove home - the blackened carcass of a family car in the driveway, concrete rubble and stucco debris everywhere, and the narrow segment of wall that once offered bay-window views of their backyard from the kitchen and second-floor master bedroom.

What the couple hadn't grasped until a week ago - a full 11 days after the Tubbs fire ripped through northern Santa Rosa - was the near annihilation of their neighborhood, destruction that no satellite photo or drone video could convey.

Patricia May is a surgeon with Kaiser Permanente Medical Group. Her husband is a former hospital administrator. Their Fountaingrove neighbors include many in the medical community.

“So many doctors lived in this area because it's close to Kaiser,” said Jeff May. “When you're on call ... you need to be able to run in quickly for emergencies. So this was the ideal place for medical people to live.”

The wildfires that ravaged Sonoma County more than two weeks ago killed at least 23 local residents and destroyed nearly 6,800 structures, including 2,900 homes in Santa Rosa.

Of those, more than 200 homes belonged to Sonoma County physicians, many tied to Santa Rosa's three major hospitals: Kaiser Permanente, Sutter Santa Rosa Regional Hospital and Santa Rosa Memorial Hospital.

Tremendous toll

It's an astonishing portrait of loss. Sonoma County has approximately 1,600 working doctors, including 1,200 in Santa Rosa.

That means 1 out of every 6 doctors in the city lost their home.

For Kaiser, operator of the county's largest hospital, that tally by last week included 77 of its doctors; Sutter Health counted 37 and St. Joseph Health, which operates Memorial Hospital, said the homes of 54 affiliated physicians were destroyed.

Including nurses, medical technicians, case managers, facilities engineers and other staff of the three largest hospitals, the number of destroyed homes rises to 406.

Wendy Young, executive director of the Sonoma County Medical Association, said the looming housing crisis wrought by the firestorm could lead physicians to leave the community.

The longer it takes to rebuild homes and find permanent housing for local doctors and medical staff, the more attractive communities outside fire-scarred Sonoma County look, she said.

“We already had a shortage of physicians in Sonoma County,” Young said. “I have doctors who are looking for houses. Where can I put them?”

Primary care physicians have been in particular short supply, she said, but it's difficult to recruit doctors of all specialties to the area because of the high cost of living and stiff competition with other Bay Area communities that offer more generous salaries.

Young said the lack of local physicians can be measured in hours worked not doctors per population.

“We don't want to lose any of them,” she said. “You already have physicians who work 80 or 90 hours a week, you don't want to lose any of those.”

Determined to rebuild

The Mays, who bought their Fountaingrove home 5½ years ago, said they want to rebuild and stay in the community. The outpouring of support, assistance and empathy has strengthened their resolve to stick around.

“The least thing is the house - it's not the house. It's knowing your neighbors, where you walked your dog,” said Patricia May. “It's more the neighborhood really than the house. Just seeing that there are no houses standing magnifies that this is really a tragedy.”

Robert Nied, a Kaiser sports medicine physician, recounted how supportive his coworkers and friends have been since flames consumed his home on Cannes Place in Fountaingrove, where he lived with his wife and two children.

Nied said he started packing early enough as the Tubbs fire advanced to collect some personal belongings, including scrapbooks, wedding photos and portraits of his children.

The family is committed to staying here. The Nieds' children attend Maria Carrillo High School and with all the disruption they've experienced, the last thing he wants to do is force them to change schools. But in a few years, they will be off to college and the balance of things keeping the family in Sonoma County could change.

He said other doctors and medical professionals are “doing the same math.”

“There isn't enough housing inventory out there,” Nied said, noting the rental supply also took a big hit in the fires.

County and city officials should do everything they can to streamline the construction and permitting process, he said, because there's a big difference between rebuilding within 18 months and waiting three years to replace a home.

Financial limitations

Financial implications are a key factor. Insurance companies in California are obligated to provide only two years of assistance for rent and other living expenses to owners of destroyed homes in disaster areas.

Many of those displaced are now competing amongst themselves and others displaced by the fire for replacement and permanent housing. Across Santa Rosa, flames wiped out up to 5 percent of the housing stock, said Barbie Robinson, director of the county Department of Health Services.

“The devastation and exacerbation of the problem as a result of the fire cannot be overstated,” said Robinson. “We need to maintain the strength of the health care delivery system in Sonoma County and we're committed to helping our health care partners identify and secures resources to address the housing needs.”

Robinson noted that doctors and other medical staff are “first responders” - a number reported to work after fleeing their doomed homes - and many have been working long hours at evacuation centers and surrounding hospitals following the closure of both Kaiser and Sutter hospitals.

Sutter reopened its hospital Oct. 17; Kaiser's hospital has yet to reopen.

“We felt the impact when Kaiser and Sutter closed,” Robinson said. “We want to make sure the fire doesn't further devastate our health care system by not being able to provide housing for our health care system personnel.”

Todd Salnas, president of St. Joseph Health Sonoma County, the Memorial Hospital operator, said it will take a coordinated effort to expedite the rebuilding process.

Salnas, who also lost his home in Fountaingrove, recommended bringing in private consultants with expertise in rebuilding areas that have seen similar devastation, in order to shorten the “learning curve and expedite solutions.”

Housing a factor

Before the fire struck, St. Joseph was actively recruiting 26 physicians and more than 50 nurses and other staff. Salnas said the availability of housing is one of the most important considerations in attracting new employees. Now it will become a factor in keeping existing employees, he said.

“We need to look at creative solutions that allow them to be retained in the community and also allow us to be competitive in recruiting additional providers,” he said.

On a recent weekday, Patricia May spent part of the afternoon running important errands - making photo copies of documents and submitting a document for a rental property in the Montgomery Village area. She and her family are currently staying at a co-worker's house in southwest Santa Rosa.

Standing in her driveway, she looked across the rubble of her Fountaingrove neighborhood. The idea of rebuilding seemed daunting. No community is prepared for such an undertaking, said Jeff May.

“We can't be sitting on permits for three to five months,” he said. “If we don't move quickly on restarting, we're going to lose physicians.”

You can reach Staff Writer Martin Espinoza at 707-521-5213 or

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