Auburn care home's 49 Fire heroes honored

By: Gus Thomson Journal Staff Writer
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About 40 employees of Colonial Healthcare facility were hailed as heroes Wednesday for their work to save its building and keep 160 residents safe during the 49 Fire. The fire burned trees on a ridge fronting Shale Ridge Lane near the entrance to the long-term care facility but workers had moved their vehicles from the front parking lot and the flames spread around the buildings. With the fire speeding farther east, some employees grabbed garden hoses to fight spot fires to keep them from advancing toward the buildings. Others shepherded residents as old as 103 to a central gathering point to await evacuation. But with the fire already past Colonial Healthcare and no immediate threat likely to residents, Executive Director Ronald Reyes said that the evacuation order from fire officials was put on hold and subsequently never issued. Ambulances and other vehicles were standing by to take residents to other care facilities in the area. On Wednesday, employees involved in the Sunday afternoon fire were awarded medals and certificates by a grateful Colonial Healthcare management. The awards honored their work to save the building and keep their cool in the midst of a catastrophe that would end up destroying 66 other buildings – including 63 houses nearby. “It was a testament to the staff,” Reyes said. “It would have been easy to become a victim, to pull in the towel and wait to evacuate.” Residents like Darlene Abasta were thankful for the efforts employees made on Aug. 30. “I feel really blessed,” Abasta said. “I felt like angels were all around the building.” Reyes said one big advantage during the fire was that it broke out during a shift change so the facility had double its normal staff ready to help. Things moved quickly after the fire began its swift move eastward from near Highway 49 driven by a strong wind. Buildings were in danger but the fire held at the front on the ridge of trees, just before the buffer of the parking lot . Ray Alexander, a Colfax resident living in a physical rehabilitation room recovering from a leg amputation, said he was in his bed, looked out a sliding-glass door and watched a car catch on fire. “It was scary,” Alexander said. “I was afraid it was going to explode in front of my room. But in a few minutes I could hear water hitting the pavement (from a helicopter drop) and I knew I was going to be safer.” Hospital staff gave residents masks and wet cloths to breath through as they moved in the hallway to the main entrance in case they needed to be evacuated. At that point, visibility was down to about 50 feet, Alexander said. Reyes said there were no injuries related to the smoke and it cleared out quickly as the breeze moved it eastward. “It was a short period of time – about 20 or 30 minutes,” Reyes said. “And then it was like someone turned off the gas range and the fire was out.” Spot fires continued and stray embers resulted in a one Colonial equipment shed sustaining fire damage. David Hutton, a dietary aide, said he was off work that day but ran to the facility after parking his car on Dry Creek Road. One of the many who manned a garden-hose fire line, he was able to keep flames from a fire in brush behind Colonial Healthcare from spreading to a building. “I’ve been here awhile, like this place and care about all these people,” Hutton said. Sacramento’s Greg Popejoy was at Colonial Healthcare on Wednesday to visit an 86-year-old friend – a stroke victim suffering from dementia. He was amazed at how close the fire came to the buildings. Popejoy said the efforts to defend the facility from burning down were the right reaction. “Stand and fight – it’s the American way,” Popejoy said. “And in this case, it worked.”