Western wildfires challenged area HMEs

Saturday, August 31, 2002

PINETOP, Ariz. - As the Rodeo-Chediski fire in northeast Arizona raged just 10 miles away - flames 100 feet high, torching and jumping from treetop to treetop - Jerry Armstrong gutted his HME office, loading concentrators, cylinders and patient files into his three vans and moving them and his family 50 miles away.

"When they first evacuated us, they were talking that the fire could come roaring through our area," said Armstrong, who owns Aspen Oxygen here. "If the wind picks up, there is nothing to stop it. A lot of days, the firefighters couldn't fight it because it was too fierce. All you can do is get out of the way and hope it calms down."

HMEs across the western United States confronted wildfires this summer, some of them deliberately set, that burned unusually fierce. Smoke and ash and other particle matter from the fires dislocated Armstrong and other HMEs, along with their patients. Those not evacuated, like Salida Medical & Respiratory in Salida, Colo., continued to do business in a kind of netherworld.

"We have not had blue skies for weeks," Fred Jackson, owner of Salida Medical, said in early July. "We have mountains a few miles away, and we can't see them. I was watching the sun go down the other day and it was reddish. You could almost look straight at it."

A number of oxygen patients asked Salida for face masks to help block out the smoke, but Jackson discouraged that, explaining that masks are intended for patients on high liter flows using equipment other than a concentrator. Patients on low liter flows would end up breathing more Co2 and compound their problems.

When oxygen patients ask for help, Jackson said, he recommends they acquire an air purifier.

After evacuating his family and his company from Pine Top, Ariz., to Round Valley, Ariz., Armstrong set up shop in the house of a friend of one of his respiratory therapists. The fires forced many of the company's 350 oxygen patients to evacuate to Phoenix and Tuscon, Ariz. The 25 or 30 who relocated to Round Valley, he supplied with oxygen.

Fortunately, the fire didn't over run PineTop, Ariz., and officials allowed Armstrong and everyone else who lived there to return a week later, no worse for wear.

"It went amazingly smooth," Armstrong said. "We worked with other providers. They provided their tanks to my patients, and I provided my tanks to theirs. Everyone pitched in." HME