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.
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.”