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Furthering family legacy

Memory Dent received a police escort to survey the carnage of her family business the day after the Almeda fire tore through Phoenix, but several weeks passed before her daughter could bear to see what was left of Northridge Center, where she played and worked throughout childhood and adolescence.

“We found a little plant trying to grow in the middle of all the ash in the building, coming out of the atrium,” Dent said. “We found a coffee cup where the kitchen used to be, so we took some of the dirt and ash. ... The plant is blooming. When we build our new building with our new atrium, that’s going to be the first plant we put in there.”

Northridge Center was deemed a total loss after the fire, but the family-owned business already has a waiting list of people ready to move back home when the rebuild is complete.

Evacuating 57

Sept. 8 was the first day of online learning for Rogue Valley students, and many Northridge employees were at home, helping their children navigate the new school year. Three main staff members were on vacation that week. Otherwise, it seemed a normal day.

Dent received a phone call from another care facility, asking if they could borrow Northridge’s wheelchair bus to transport senior resident evacuees from Ashland to Central Point due to a fire. A second facility called shortly after with the same request.

Dent’s sister, social administrator Tamara Fielding, drove one bus, while a housekeeper drove the other to help evacuate Ashland senior care facilities. Fielding watched people flee for their lives on foot, carrying animals and property on their backs.

Meanwhile, Dent knew nothing about fire movement, other than it was affecting Ashland. A resident listening to the police and fire scanner brought news that the fire was threatening Phoenix.

Once scanner chatter indicated the fire was actively burning nearby, she called the emergency hotline, which was busy. Dark gray smoke blew closer. She spent 12 minutes on hold with 911. When she got through to an operator, it became clear they needed to evacuate immediately.

She called in all her staff — normally a crew of 25, but down to eight as some had already left to secure families — and got to work loading residents into buses in the parking lot. She announced to all the residents in their rooms, “This is not a drill.”

“Just as I hung up the phone, we lost all electricity,” Dent recalled. “It became pitch black inside.”

The bare-bones staff used cellphone flashlights to get residents out of their rooms and packed like sardines onto two buses, headed for the Jackson County Expo. Dent filled four black garbage bags with medications and grabbed all resident medical charts. Passersby loaded wheelchairs, electric chairs and walkers into trucks.

“We’ve had fire drills — we have to do them every month, thank goodness, and they usually complain,” Dent said of residents. “But everybody was in good spirits. We could see the gray smoke, some ash was starting to fall on us ... we’re talking 52 residents in wheelchairs and walkers, just going with the flow.”

Dent did a final check, room to room. She opened a window, popped out the screen and turned the shower on, hoping two cats who refused to emerge from under a bed would flee. After 12 minutes, the building was clear. Twenty minutes more and buses were packed. The Jackson County sheriff’s deputy checked on their evacuation before returning to the field.

A friend four-wheeled through the back streets of Phoenix, scorching his tires on the approaching blaze, to get to the facility and help. They loaded oxygen tanks, boxes of Depends, checkbooks and employee files into the back of Dent’s Jeep. Law enforcement sounded blow horns, and Dent watched an adjacent trailer park taken by dark smoke and a hot glow.

Even as she drove away, she thought the sprinklers might come on and they’d return to a standing building.

After about 15 minutes in her car, stuck on Highway 99, Dent received notifications on her phone that the facility’s fire alarms had turned on. She knew smoke had entered the building minutes after they fled. Smoke alarms blared through every corner of the building. Cameras went offline and the building succumbed to flames.

The Expo put 52 Northridge residents into a reserved area with cots, sleeping bags and pillows. Nurses and doctors arrived to offer help. Fielding brought five residents and two employees from the senior foster home. Without enough blankets, Dent and her staff started wrapping chilled residents in curtains. One resident’s voice carried through the room as she sang hymns, coaxing others to sleep.

When they first unloaded at The Expo, several wheelchairs and walkers were stolen during the confusion. Pear Valley Senior Living offered 20 spaces to relocate residents with substantial care needs.

“Just as we got the last resident loaded in their electric wheelchair into the bus, the Red Cross comes out of the building, ‘We’re evacuating!’” Dent recalled. “I look up and there’s this gray plume of smoke right behind The Expo.”

Once again, everyone was loaded and ready to move at the moment an urban wildfire pushed the limits of urgency.

The group sheltered at Pear Valley until Sept. 16, where caseworkers identified new placements for residents on Medicaid and corresponded with families. Through the entire event, no COVID-19 cases originated from the Northridge Center crew.

Donations flooded in. Dent’s son, a certified nursing assistant who hopes to take over the family business someday, worked 12-hour days for more than two weeks without a break.

Today, Fielding connects with her dearly missed residents by phone, brings gifts to their new homes and sends cards. Five have passed away since the fire.

She remembers all their faces, wondering what would happen next. Fielding and Dent told the residents individually at The Expo that everything was lost. They sat with families or one-on-one — anything to ensure the seniors didn’t feel alone.

“My heart is torn because my people are not there and the building is not there,” Fielding said.

By Sept. 16, all residents were placed at other care facilities — a tricky task in the Rogue Valley, where few senior care centers accept Medicaid, Dent said. She highlighted Pear Valley, Orchards Assisted Living, Alderwood Assisted Living, Skylark Assisted Living, Lakeland Senior Living and The Bridge Retirement and Assisted Living for taking a few of their residents each.

Where to go from here

Les Connell, 75, Northridge Center owner and Dent and Fielding’s father, likely wouldn’t have considered rebuilding if it were just himself and his wife, Jackie, invested in the business. But with his children and grandchildren involved, he wants to give them an opportunity to do what they do best — the work that’s their passion, career and future, he said.

Jackie Connell, a licensed nurse, founded the facility in 1980. Jackie’s mother had owned nursing homes in Oregon. Jackie and Les purchased one of them in Sandy, and ran it until work relocated Les to Medford in 1971. Jackie took up a job as a nurse at the home that eventually became part of Northridge Center Assisted Living.

The Connells cosigned a loan for a $50,000 down payment on the facility — a 36-bed state-licensed nursing home at the time. Jackie had a hand in every decision from furniture selection to paint colors, and her own original artwork hung on the walls.

“I remember the school bus used to drop me and my sisters off every day right there at the nursing home,” Dent said.

The place was home, with 30 grandmothers and grandfathers to help with homework, watch cartoons and referee wheelchair races in the basement and hallways. As they grew up, each sibling worked in the kitchen or helped with activities.

In 1984, Les brought on a maintenance supervisor, who worked with the family until the day the building burned. The following year, they purchased additional land. In 1986, new federal legislation requiring care facilities to have licensed nursing staff on hand 24/7 led the family into a tough financial situation. A friend purchased the property and put $800,000 into remodeling, while the Connells retained management.

In 1994, they bought the facility back and built Northridge Center on the adjacent property with 33 assisted living apartments. In 2000, they joined the two buildings and added 22 more apartments. The sisters began operating the business as administrators in 2004.

Les described the history behind Northridge Center as a “terrific journey,” with no lawsuits or significant insurance claims filed on the property in 40 years of ownership (minus a few small fender-benders with the buses).

The Connells named the halls of the facility after family members, until grandchildren exceeded nameless halls. Photographs survived the fire in one hallway of Dent’s son and nephew, both named Gabriel.

The day after the fire, the family was in shock, stumbling through “the fog” but with a focus on ensuring residents were safely evacuated, cared for and relocated. The magnitude of what was lost didn’t come immediately.

The Almeda fire reduced an 1891 Steinway Heirloom Collection concert grand piano, signed by Duke Ellington, to ashes and a foot pedal. A preserved wooden carriage house door that decorated a hallway survived from the 1800s until Sept. 8. They lost photographs and awards granted to Dent’s grandmother, a WWII nurse who actively worked in health care until age 95, and a wall of family photographs compiled since 1982.

The family met together, including parents, children and some grandchildren, and decided they weren’t ready for the story of their business to end.

“This is his legacy,” Dent said of her father. “Just like my grandma left things to my mom, my dad wants to leave this to us, so he’s wanting to get it built and get it back into place so we can continue on with this mission that our family loves.”

The new facility will be one building, slightly bigger, with radiant heat in the floor to warm aching bones. Some apartments will have a door to the outside and one to the hallway, to ease family visits. The 400-plant atrium will be rebuilt, to continue supplying fresh oxygen and a connection point for residents whose upbringings included nature and plant life, Les said.

Dent envisions specific rooms for Alzheimer’s care, a new senior day care and a child care center for employees. The facility was insured, so about three-quarters of the rebuild is covered. As of Monday, the property was cleared bare. Dent hopes to bring residents back within two years. She adheres to her faith — sometimes God takes away and leaves something beautiful in the ashes.

Les has set his daughters to the task of compiling their digital photographs to create a scrapbook, which will sit in the lobby of the new facility and remind people of the history that is the Northridge Center legacy.

Contact Ashland Tidings reporter Allayana Darrow at adarrow@rosebudmedia.com or 541-776-4497 and follow her on Twitter @AllayanaD.

Photos courtesy of Memory DentThe Northridge Center after the Almeda fire.
Photos courtesy of Memory DentA plant grows where the Northridge Center owners plan to rebuild the atrium.