Southern California’s hospitals prepare for the worst as embers ignite throughout the region

Burned palm trees are left standing between the 101 Freeway and Faria Beach as the Thomas fire reaches the Pacific Ocean.
(Al Seib / Los Angeles Times)

Hospitals across Southern California reported that high numbers of patients with breathing problems caused by this week’s wildfires visited emergency rooms.

Health officials in Ventura, Los Angeles and Santa Barbara counties warned of high pollution levels caused by smoke. The microscopic particles in smoke can penetrate deep into the lungs, creating a hazard for those who already have heart or lung problems such as asthma, emphysema or COPD.

The Skirball fire that has now burned 475 acres broke out above the UCLA campus, in Bel-Air. The university lost power and canceled classes. The smell of smoke lingered in medical buildings.


After the fire began on Wednesday, a 5-year-old was admitted to UCLA Medical Center-Santa Monica because the child was struggling to breathe, UCLA health spokeswoman Amy Albin said.

In Westwood, Ronald Reagan UCLA Medical Center treated five patients with asthma attacks on Wednesday, and UCLA’s urgent care clinic in Century City administered breathing treatments to a handful of walk-in patients through Thursday, Albin said.

Health officials advised that people in the area, as well as those in Malibu and Santa Monica, stay indoors, even when smoke or ash cannot be seen or smelled. Inhaling smoke can cause chest pain, shortness of breath, coughing and wheezing.

Officials also warned of particularly bad air quality in the San Fernando Valley. The Creek fire, which has now burned more than 15,000 acres, broke out Tuesday in Sylmar. Twenty-five patients showed up to the Providence Holy Cross Medical Center in Mission Hills on Tuesday complaining of smoke-related problems, hospital spokeswoman Patricia Aidem said.

The hospital also set up a hotline Tuesday to field questions about air quality and has answered about 20 inquiries from patients, she said.

Jack Hagerman, spokesman for Valley Presbyterian Hospital in Van Nuys, said the hospital was offering face masks to employees, patients and visitors. He said air purifiers were put in high-risk areas of the hospital to keep the air as clean as possible.


“To limit smoke coming into the building, we’ve closed all of our exits except for our main entrance and entrance to the Emergency Department,” Hagerman said in an email. “We’ve added fans at those entrances to discourage outside air from traveling inside.”

Health officials advise that people limit their outdoor activity, close windows and use air conditioning that recirculates inside air. When outside, they said, people should wear N95 masks to protect from harmful particles.

As the fires grow unpredictable because of heavy Santa Ana winds, hospital officials have had to improvise to deal with staffing shortages, road closures and evacuations.

Early Thursday morning, firefighters expected fast-moving flames to spread the Thomas fire into the community of Ojai. Officials at Ojai Valley Community Hospital decided to transfer 48 of their patients who couldn’t walk to another facility in case of an emergency evacuation. Twenty-seven patients remained at the hospital.

“The fire department advised us that the situation in the Ojai Valley was very fluid and that if the winds shifted or increased, our facilities could be impacted,” the hospital said in a statement Thursday. Ojai since has been untouched by the blaze.

Ventura County has been most affected by the flames, with the Thomas fire scorching 132,000 acres. Officials at Simi Valley Hospital deployed a special command center Tuesday — “a heightened state of readiness in the event our situation should change” that has remained open through the week, said hospital spokeswoman Alicia Gonzalez.


Santa Paula Hospital and Ventura County Medical Center had to rely on generator power because of blackouts on Tuesday, said Sheila Murphy, spokeswoman for the Ventura County health care agency, which runs both facilities.

“Santa Paula Hospital, which is just miles from the original start point for the Thomas fire, remained opened throughout the evolving disaster, in large part due to the courage and coordination of the hospital staff and efforts of fire rescuers from state, county and local battalions,” Murphy said.

Ventura County Medical Center took in 20 patients from Vista Del Mar Hospital in Ventura, a psychiatric hospital that was evacuated and burned by the fires, Murphy said.

A few critically ill patients from Santa Paula Hospital and Ventura County Medical Center were transferred to nearby facilities, Murphy said. All other patients stayed.

By Friday, staff members shifted their focus to maximizing “the quality of air for patients and staff, as smoke and ash fills the community,” Murphy said in an email. “At this time, there is no expectation of evacuation of either facility as fire personnel have asked hospital leaders to ‘bunker down,’ as they continue to keep containment around both facilities.”


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