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One of the ongoing stories during the recent October Fires was the pilgrimage undertaken by the residents of the Sonoma Developmental Center, or SDC. Its Eldridge campus was in the path of the Nuns Fire early on Monday, Oct. 9, threatening not only the 112-year old campus but the remaining 241 residents, many of whom have lived at SDC for years, if not decades.

As the fires closed in on the campus, and at least one small outbuilding on the property’s northern edge burst into flames, the staff marshaled its resources and, with the help of area first responders, evacuated all of the residents safely. Many were taken first to Adele Harrison Middle School on Broadway in Sonoma, others to the Sonoma Veterans Memorial Building.

But then the vets building, too, came under threat when the Norrbom Fire erupted higher up the mountain overlooking Sonoma just two days later. As bulldozers plowed the Overlook Trail to save the Mountain Cemetery and the Veterans Memorial Building, the developmentally disabled residents were moved again.

“As the fires progressed, out of an abundance of caution, both of these locations were safely evacuated to the Dixon Fairgrounds on Oct. 11,” said Nancy Lungren of the state Department of Developmental Services. “Fire, law enforcement, and medical support assisted SDC staff.”

At Dixon, the residents and staff were housed in temporary shelters, including tents. “Staff and volunteers are focused on safely supporting each individual during this relocation. There is ample food, water and access to medical attention and necessary medications,” stated the DDS website.

By Oct. 17, as the fire threat was reduced, DDS was developing a plan to return to the SDC campus. “We… are exploring clean up, repair and remediation options for the grounds and buildings,” continued the DDS message.

Kathleen Miller, president of the Parent Hospital Association and a sometime critic of DDS’s administration of the developmental center, had positive things to say about the trials of the past two weeks. Her own home in the Larkfield area of Santa Rosa was under fire threat, and simply getting to Sonoma to check on her son, Danny, was a challenge.

On Wednesday, Oct. 11, she finally found him at the Veterans Memorial Building, where the “behavior clients” had been taken two days earlier.

“It was a massive effort. It was all hands on deck,” she said of the evacuation from the 125-year-old campus, with its many buildings amid 900 acres of oak woodlands near Glen Ellen.

She followed him to Dixon after the second evacuation, where she found the patients’ response to their unpredictable situation varied.

“We have some clients who are very social, including ones that are bedridden, and they just love attention and they love interaction,” said Miller. “They're probably enjoying the heck out of this.”

Unfortunately her own son, with several behavioral conditions and a specific regimen of medication, is not one of those. “They don't do that well with this sort of setting. It varies according to which client you're talking about.”

But overall, said Miller, things are as good as could be expected. “I think the town has been pretty welcoming, which is really, really nice. They're seeing all these buses and cars and people and ambulances showing up, and I'm sure they were like – what the heck is going on?!”

Miller described the makeshift facility at Dixon as including beds, showers, food trucks and tents.

“They erected basically a small hospital and treatment facility, which is what is needed for folks. They've really done an amazing job, and I'm not a big fan always of DDS, as you probably know.”

Miller’s, and the Parent Hospital Association’s, objections to DDS have frequently focused on the department’s accelerated schedule for closure of the Sonoma Developmental Center. It’s still on track for complete closure, and the relocation of all its residents, by the end of 2018. Miller is concerned that this crisis is giving the department the opportunity to further accelerate the relocation of the developmentally disabled in its care.

And there’s some evidence that’s been the case, she said. “What's unfortunate is, I found out yesterday, now they're using the crisis to fast track placements… I'm getting calls from the families. They're saying, ‘What's going on. They're telling me I should move.’”

She cited in particular Alta Regional Center in Sacramento, one of five regional centers that have technical oversight of individuals in state care in the Department of Developmental Services. Miller believes some 20 SDC residents have been assigned to community centers during the current crisis, as their custodians have come under pressure from the regional centers to move their family member, sooner rather than later.

Lungren on Monday confirmed that some residents had been moved to new homes. Of the 241 residents evacuated, 174 returned to Eldridge this weekend.

“During the relocation at the Dixon Fairgrounds, some individuals moved into their permanent residential placements in accordance with plans that were in place prior to the fires,” said Lungren. “Other SDC residents were relocated to Porterville Developmental Center, medical facilities, or went with their families. Some individuals had medical needs that required hospitalization.”

In a followup statement, DDS officials stressed that, “Individual needs were carefully considered when determining appropriate and supportive alternatives during this evacuation.”

Again and again, Miller applauds the disaster response of SDC staff and the DDS for how they’ve handled the fire emergency, but she remains disappointed in this direction.

“I think it was just such a poor decision on their part to do this. There's no need. We all realize that our family members are going be placed, but why not go through the orderly process, which has a transition planning meeting, and a little bit of cross-training?”

Requests to Alta Regional Center for clarification or comment were not responded to at press time.

Then again, Miller asks, what would be the response of a number of community centers and small facilities to disaster – would they be prepared?

“If a fire came roaring down, and there's a home right up the street that was pretty close to the fire zone and those are all wheelchair clients, do they have medications for those clients? Where would they take them? What would be the plan? I don't know.”

Email Christian at christian.kallen@sonomanews.com.

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