(Credit: Kari Greer / USFS via NASA)

If the Marshall Fire in Colorado taught Cindy Longfellow of Juniper Communities anything, it was to be prepared for everything.

The fire, which began Dec. 30 and was fueled by hurricane-force winds, destroyed more than 1,00 homes and burned across more than 6,000 acres in Superior, Louisville and Boulder counties.

Caught in its path were at least two senior living providers — Juniper Village at Louisville Memory Care and Balfour Senior Living, with a campus of five communities in Louisville, CO, serving 400 residents in independent living, assisted living, memory care and skilled nursing.

The evacuation

It was the morning of Dec. 30, just before New Year’s, when Longfellow, vice president of business development, sales and marketing for Juniper Communities, heard about a wildfire about a mile and a half from her home.

A 35-year Colorado resident, Longfellow told McKnight’s Senior Living she was used to dealing with wildfires. But the Marshall Fire turned into something she called “unprecedented.”

By early afternoon, the Boulder County Office of Emergency Management declared the city of Louisville, CO, under an evacuation order. Not long after, emergency personnel arrived at Juniper Village, where staff members initially were told to shelter in place. The problem? Emergency crews had their hands full evacuating Centennial Peaks Hospital, a behavioral health hospital, and the larger Avista Adventist Hospital across the street.

Longfellow and Juniper staff members cracked open the disaster and evacuation plans they had in place, but they quickly learned that they were going to have to go beyond the pages of the plan. 

At the corporate level, Longfellow and Vice President of Risk Management and Business Operations Don Breneman worked with Juniper Village Executive Director Dallas Mulvin and her staff to coordinate the relocation of 46 memory care residents. 

But they soon realized their initial evacuation site, Avista Adventist Hospital across the street, was off the table because it was being evacuated itself. The next two evacuation sites on the list, two regional hospitals, were filling up with patients from Avista Hospital. 

Fortunately, Longfellow said, Juniper Village had developed a relationship with Golden Lodge Assisted Living and Memory Care. The Golden, CO, community had opened in the midst of the pandemic and was not yet at capacity. A call to Golden Lodge was greeted with enthusiasm and a promise to house Juniper Village’s displaced residents, she said.

“It was nothing short of a miracle” to relocate residents to a secure memory care community, Longfellow said.

Staff members and residents sat and watched the fire creep closer, arriving at the west side of the hospital buildings, she recounted. By late afternoon, the community finally received the order to go, and three Boulder County buses rolled up. 

Jumper Village’s residents joined 35,000 other residents on crowded roads, making a normal 30-mile journey to Golden Lodge take more than two hours. But everyone was safe, and by that evening, everyone was settled into Golden Lodge.

Meanwhile, Balfour had a daunting task ahead of it with 400 residents, many of whom needed two to three people to assist with their mobility and evacuation. 

“Reflecting on that number continues to give us pause. That we were able to move all out and now back home is amazing,” Balfour Senior Living Director of Marketing and Communications Louise Garrels told McKnight’s Senior Living.

Due to the proximity of the Balfour campus to the fire, the community elected to have one senior manager — Vice President of Operations Julie Nash — triage coordination offsite and a safe distance from the fires. 

Regional Operations Vice President Eric Bressler coordinated efforts across the entire campus, whereas executive directors for each community on campus coordinated their resident evacuations — Becki Siemers for Balfour Retirement Community (assisted living and skilled nursing), Michele Sepples for Balfour at Cherrywood Village (memory care), Richard Conklin for The Lodge & Residences at Balfour (independent living) and Andrea Stewart for Balfour at Lavender Farms (assisted living).

The evacuation was assisted by a mix of corporate executives, sister communities — Balfour at Central Park and Balfour at Riverfront Park in Denver; Balfour at Littleton in Littleton, CO; and Balfour at Longmont in Longmont, CO — and neighboring senior living communities — Brookdale Longmont, Vivage Senior Living in Lakewood, CO, and St. Paul Health Center in Denver. All of these groups, Garrels said, showed up with vans to help transport residents, as did St. Vrain Valley School District in Denver.

Balfour’s independent living residents were accommodated by Woodspring Suites, and assisted living residents stayed at Fairfield Inn and Frasier Meadows assisted living community in Boulder, CO. Memory care residents were transported to Hover Green House, a Longmont, CO, continuing care retirement community; Accel at Longmont, a skilled nursing facility, and AltaVita Senior Residences, which provides independent living, assisted living and memory care in Longmont, CO;. Skilled nursing residents stayed at the Gardens on Quail Retirement Community, which offers assisted living and memory care, in Arvada, CO.

The return

While the majority of Balfour’s residents were able to return home the next day, Juniper Village residents spent about a week at Golden Lodge.

Longfellow said after assessing the situation, it became apparent that the relocation would last more than a night or two for Juniper Village residents.

While restoration crews got to work that weekend on repairing the building, replacing HVAC filters, restoring power and performing smoke and ash remediation, Longfellow was working the phones trying to find real beds to replace the temporary cots that residents were using. She managed to find a local firm, which provided 40 beds at a discounted rate despite the fact that their warehouse was closed and no delivery people were on call.

“They found a way,” Longfellow said.

Throughout the ordeal, she led the communication effort with families. She and her team of four made one-on-one calls to each family daily. Families, Longfellow said, appreciated the efforts, saying they provided “a sense of relief.”

“We felt that personal touch point to every family every day was critical,” she said. 

During the displacement, an employee tested positive for COVID-19 as part of a standard testing protocol before her shift. Subsequent testing of all residents and staff did not reveal additional coronavirus cases, but Longfellow said the community had to close to visitation for a few days.

“That was an added blow and a burden to our families after all of this happened,” Longfellow said. “It was hard for them.”

It wasn’t until Jan. 7 that residents were able to return to Juniper Village, assisted by three buses from Balfour Senior Living. Connections among the sales teams secured the necessary transportation to help memory care residents return to their homes. 

Balfour had to work on getting utilities restored to 300,000 square feet of living space on its campus. In the meantime, portable generators were used to run heaters to prevent pipes from freezing. Although the fire was fueled by warm, dry weather and high winds, by the time independent living, assisted living and skilled nursing residents returned on Dec. 31, snow and temperatures began to fall.

Memory care residents were delayed in returning to their building until Jan. 11 due to concerns related to a boil alert and additional cleanup necessary due to the building’s proximity to the fire. 

Lessons learned

Garrels said that experience contributed to the organization’s success in the Marshall Fire. Many members of the leadership team had survived the 100-year flood of Boulder County in 2013, either with Balfour or with other organizations. Although Balfour did not need to evacuate then, many still were aware of what went into an evacuation.

Others, she said, had worked in senior living in Florida and drew on the experience of hurricane evacuations.

For others who may face a similar situation, Garrels said that it is important to stay calm — and to help others stay calm — and not to be afraid to ask for help. Building strong community relationships outside of buildings, she said, is vital.

Juniper Village was lucky, Longfellow said. Avista Adventist Hospital across the street remains closed due to the fire damage. And an entire residential neighborhood across the street from the community, as well as a nearby school, are gone.

“I’ve driven the path of fire a couple of times,” she said. “I don’t understand it.”

Looking back, Longfellow said the biggest takeaway from the ordeal for her was, “Don’t think your disaster plan goes deep enough and far enough.” When the emergency arose, all three of Juniper Village’s evacuation sites ended up not being options.

“What happens if everyone has to evacuate?” she said, adding that fire evacuation plans typically consider a spot fire, not something on the scale of the Marshall Fire.“ One of the key things we said is, we have to go deeper. We probably need five [evacuation sites].

“Consider taking that evacuation plan and going on every delta three to four steps deeper,” she advised peer organizations. 

Supporting employees also is important, Longfellow said. Even while the community was working fast to evacuate its residents, management was reassuring employees that the company “had their backs” and would help them in whatever way they needed. Employees also received “hero pay” for their work through the ordeal.

“People were scared,” Longfellow said. “There is a fire across the road. But they performed.

“They put those residents ahead of their fear. That, in my mind, is just incredible.”

Editor’s Note: Read disaster preparedness tips from Stan Szpytek, president of Fire and Life Safety Inc., here.

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