The Antelope Valley has so few hospitals that Lancaster Community Hospital Chief Executive Bob Trautman estimates that roughly 35 percent of his area's market heads to the Santa Clarita and San Fernando valleys for care.

So when Trautman got word last week of a late-afternoon fire at the construction site of his new Palmdale facility, he tried hard not to panic. Trautman raced to the roof of Lancaster Community to watch a dramatic amount of smoke rising from the 40-acre site eight miles away.

"The adrenaline was definitely pumping," said Trautman, who has run Lancaster Community since Universal Health Systems Inc., a publicly held company in King of Prussia, Pa., acquired the hospital seven years ago.

Fortunately, there appeared to have been more smoke than fire at the future Palmdale Regional Medical Center, which had been scheduled to open in the fourth quarter of this year. Fire damage was limited to the roof, and Trautman expects to learn this week to what extent smoke and water damage elsewhere in the complex might delay the facility's completion. The cause of the fire has not yet been determined.

Even with the economic downturn that has turned many of Palmdale and Lancaster's bedroom community subdivisions into ghost towns, the sister cities still have a severe shortage of acute-care beds. Palmdale is considered the largest city in the state without its own hospital.

That will change with the opening of Palmdale Regional, which is expected to have 239 licensed beds, nearly double the number of Lancaster Community. At this point, the Lancaster hospital is slated to be converted for specialty treatment, such as rehabilitation. Antelope Valley Hospital, a community district facility just one mile from Lancaster Community, has 411 licensed beds, but no rehab wing.

Trautman, who will relocate to Palmdale Regional when it opens, expects that the new hospital will generate between 500 to 600 additional health care jobs in the valley likely welcome news to the local real estate community.

Nursing Survey

The slowing economy is creating a tougher job search for new nurses, despite the state's chronic nurse shortage and a growing population of needy elderly patients.

The 2008 Greater Los Angeles Labor Market Pulse found that it will likely take new nurses three to six months to find a job. By contrast, 87 percent of the student nurses his group surveyed expected they'd only have to search two months, based on the experiences of past student nurses.