Wildfires that destroyed nearly 1,300 homes, caused an estimated $1 billion in damages and forced the largest mass evacuation in California history put San Diego-area hospitals to the test last week.
While the financial toll to hospitals in Southern California remains unknown, executives said the blazes will cost millions in overtime, equipment and unpaid services. Prior disasters helped providers prepare for the worst, including evacuations, and to grapple with the emotional toll of the blazes, in which many staff members lost their own homes.
Its been very emotional for our family here at Palomar Pomerado Health, said Andy Hoang, a spokesman for the San Diego-based system.
Pomerado Hospital and the adjacent Villa Pomerado skilled nursing facility were forced to evacuate on the morning of Oct. 22, as blazes crept closer to the 107-bed facility in Poway.
Over four hours, staff transported 202 patients, including many critically ill, to seven other hospitals in the region. Two babies in the neonatal unit were airlifted to Rady Childrens Hospital San Diego. Some 70 patients required evacuation via ambulance.
Hospital staff could see smoke billowing over a hillside several hundred yards away from the hospital as the evacuation ended. By 2 p.m. that day, with all patients out of harms way, remaining employees pitched in by spraying down trees and grass around the hospital with water to prevent any sparks from the nearby fires from catching, Hoang said.
Pomerado, like others in the region, felt prepared to respond to the fires because of disaster protocols put in place after an October 2003 blaze known as the Cedar fire, which killed 15 people and burned nearly 300,000 acres in San Diego County.
That was a major, major crisis, Hoang said. Since then, weve conducted evacuation drills and that allowed us to be prepared this time.
Just north of San Diego, 146-bed Fallbrook (Calif.) Hospital, was also evacuated Oct. 22 as the 9,500-acre Rice Canyon fire bore down. One 91-year-old patient died of natural causes during the evacuation, according to local news reports.
Chris Van Gorder, chief executive officer of Scripps Health, a four-hospital community health system in San Diego, agreed that much has been learned since the Cedar fire and Hurricane Katrina. Van Gorder led a team of Scripps medical staff to Houston to help Katrina evacuees. Information was sorely lacking in that event, Van Gorder said. Im somewhat surprised by this level of cooperation here, but I am very pleased.
Hundreds of Scripps staff used BlackBerrys to communicate on a minute-by-minute basis during the wildfires, and disseminate updates from San Diego Countys central command, on a variety of matters, including fire patterns, shelter information and emergency hotline clarifications.
The homes of most everyone, including Van Gorder, were evacuated. Scripps set up day-care centers at each hospital, purchased blocks of hotel rooms for staff and provided extra leave. By late last week, strategies had shifted from evacuation planning to preparations for a surge in patients returning to the area, Van Gorder said.
The hospitals in the region braced for a rise in respiratory illnesses because of poor air quality. They were also expecting higher demand for prescription refills and treatment of chronic conditions. Because hospitals canceled elective surgeries and most physician offices were closed during the crisis, a surge in overall demand of services is expected, officials said.
The 470-bed University of California San Diego Medical Centerwith the only burn unit in the countytreated a total of 18 patients as of Oct. 25 for burns, a spokeswoman said.
No hospitals or clinics were burned by the wildfires, but many had smoke damage. On Oct. 24, some staff volunteered to return to Palomar Hospital, along with a hired cleaning crew, to ready the facility for the countys go-ahead to reopen. Scripps spent $200,000 on 250 air scrubbers to remove particulates at its facilities. Outpatient clinics in the fire zones required cleanings to remove soot before they could be reopened.