On October 8 2017, Sonoma County suffered the worst wildfire in California history. The Tubbs Fire was an unprecedented natural disaster that created an unusual and extremely difficult circumstance for residents across the North Bay. In the early morning hours winds of over 60 miles an hour drove the ground fire and airborne streams of embers to overwhelm several subdivisions in northeast and northwest Santa Rosa. Over 5,000 structures were completely destroyed, including most of the residential and commercial properties in the Fountaingrove neighborhood.
When the wildfires approached the Fountaingrove area where four of our senior living communities are located, our Oakmont Senior Living employees, in partnership with emergency officials, residents and their families, successfully evacuated over 400 seniors living at our Santa Rosa properties.. Many of our Oakmont residents and families, alongside first responders, worked hard to alert their neighbors and ensure they were also brought to safety.
We are thankful there were no fatalities from the evacuation of residents from Oakmont Senior Living and other assisted living communities. Unfortunately, the majority of those who passed away elsewhere in the county as a result of the fire were elderly. As Scott Alonso, spokesman for Sonoma County, reported, “With any sort of disaster….the elderly may not have transportation, they may not have access to evacuate as fast as possible. They may be wheel-chair bound, they may have access issues – those folks may take more care to evacuate safely.”
This site will provide an account of the actions we took to proactively evacuate our residents and provide ongoing support to them in the aftermath of this deadly natural disaster.
“We live at Varenna and would like you to know how much we appreciate the very professional and excellent way we were treated by your staff throughout the fire evacuation process. They were so helpful and kind during the entire six weeks. We really appreciated the daily meetings to keep us informed and to answer the many questions we all had concerning the status of Varenna and our impending return. Thank you all for everything you have done for us.”
“My sister and I would like to commend the administration and staff of Villa Capri for the outstanding evacuation that happened early Monday morning. The fires in Santa Rosa were a horrendous event and it is amazing that everyone was saved. We are also grateful for the super attentive follow up care at Belmont Village. All the clients from Santa Rosa appear to be calm, and secure. It must be comforting for them to see so many familiar faces. Thank you for making that happen!”
“We are grateful to the outstanding owners, management, and staff who were able to safely evacuate hundreds of residents the night of the firestorm. We know many of the staff lost their own homes that night. Our thoughts and thanks go out to all of them.”
“The response at Varenna was excellent by 1st responders, staff and even residents. The generator did go on (I think it’s right below our bedroom) and there was emergency lighting in the hallways and in the lobby. Name checks were made as we boarded the bus, again at the church and when we boarded the bus for Concord as well as leaving Concord. I don’t know what else the staff could have done. In my mind safety and evacuation was prime in everyone’s mind.”
From Residents & Family Members
A son-in-law’s story: (do your research – acquire perspective through knowledge)
For my mother-in-law, moving to Varenna 10 years ago was akin to going to heaven without dying.
It would take pages, and then more pages, and then more pages still, to fully enumerate the hourly, daily, weekly, monthly opportunities Varenna provides for its residents to nourish their lives physically, intellectually, spiritually, and socially. If you doubt this, do your research, and get real. Varenna is the infrastructure for engagement on every level that keeps oldsters active and vital. Are you interested in smashing to smithereens the normal attrition level of seniors at senior living facilities? Check out Varenna.
The confluence of “Diablo winds,” the state’s hottest summer on record (turning dry vegetation to tinder,) and a middle of the night surprise, turned Sunday October 8th into a massive firestorm that became among the worst in California’s history.
After my wife and I fled our own home with the explosion of Camp Newman cresting the hill to our west in flames and sparks as though the sun was rising in anger at 1:30 am that frightful Monday morning, and focused on Mom, we tried to access Varenna from both sides of Fountaingrove Parkway. The combination of State (highway patrol), County (Sheriff Department), and Santa Rosa City (Police) official chaos and dysfunction conspired to deny us, and to deny returning Varenna employees (which we witnessed) access to Varenna – “no way no how will we allow you up there, period.”
My wife and I shake our heads in admiration – how did you get all those complicatedly older people out alive? Absolutely heroic attitude and behavior. Thank you thank you Varenna management and staff!
Please use any part of this letter, and my over-a-decade of direct knowledge and experience that it represents, in any way you deem advisable.
PS – Bill and Cindy Gallaher are “salt of the earth” people, to their very essence and in the deepest meaning of the phrase. It pisses me off that people assume, suggest, or conclude otherwise.
How did Oakmont go about evacuating each location?
In the early morning hours of Sunday, October 9, 2017, the smell of smoke was noticed by one of the staff members on duty at the Fountaingrove Lodge and by the Health Services Director for the Terraces who lives in employee housing on the Fountaingrove Lodge campus.
The wind was strong, and the power began to flicker. The Med Tech advised Executive Director Robert May of the situation and called “911” but got a busy signal. Repeated phone calls by Robert would not go through, so he left his home and headed to Fountaingrove Lodge. Traffic going south on 101 was blocked, and fire was arching over the freeway. He turned around and got off at River Road. Despite the presence of police vehicles and barriers, he explained who he was and that he needed to get to the community. He drove around the barricade, was pursued by a police car, and was ordered to turn back.
Robert went to the pre-identified evacuation site and began assisting in unloading residents who had been safely evacuated in cars and buses.
The Health Services Director at the Terraces could hear a police bull horn on Thomas Lake Harris Drive ordering everyone to evacuate. She explained to the police officer that she was the Director of the Terraces and that residents needed to be evacuated. The officer told her the community had only 30 minutes to evacuate. When she explained that the community had 33 memory impaired residents to evacuate, the officer said, “Just do your best.” Despite her request for emergency evacuation assistance, none was offered.
She notified Executive Director Robert May of the evacuation order, then notified the Health Services Director at Fountaingrove Lodge, the adjoining Oakmont community. Although phone service was very spotty and calls were repeatedly dropped, the Health Services Director went to Fountaingrove Lodge to grab the keys and the buses, and asked two staff members who live in on-site employee housing to assist and drive the buses.
At Fountaingrove Lodge, resident Floor Captains began notifying residents of an evacuation using lanterns that had been issued to Floor Captains in the event of an emergency. Some residents began leaving in their own cars, and staff helped those in need of assistance to the front lobby. Staff checked every room and notified residents they needed to leave.
Oakmont staff left with the loaded buses and cars to go to the Coddingtown Mall, then to the New Vintage Church to assist residents out of the bus.
At the Terraces, the Health Service Director assumed command of the evacuation along with three on-duty care staff and one volunteer care provider. Staff began getting residents up and assisting them to the bus. The Health Services Director of Fountaingrove Lodge arrived with her husband to the community. They were allowed access by the police officer diverting traffic after showing her name badge and explaining that there were memory care residents who needed to be evacuated. By this time the nearby trees and the field were on fire. When she arrived, she went to the lower level and began assisting residents out of the building. When the bus was full, they began loading residents into employee cars.
Staff called the Fire Department directly and asked for help after repeated unsuccessful attempts to reach 911. When firefighters showed up, they ordered staff to leave because the fire was very close. Some of the firefighters left to go to another fire location. The staff ran to the street as the fire truck was driving away to flag them to return and help with the remaining residents. She refused to leave because her count showed there were five residents unaccounted for. The Health Services Director went back into the community, found the remaining residents and had the remaining firefighters assist her in loading four residents in her car. The fifth and final resident was loaded into another car that came from Fountaingrove Lodge. At that point, there was zero visibility and fire all around.
At the evacuation site, the Terraces residents were directed to a separate room so they could be more closely monitored and cared for. The Red Cross arrived with water and food. Oakmont culinary staff arrived with food and prepared a hot breakfast for everyone at the church. Oakmont staff began efforts to notify family of the evacuation and the evacuation location. Some families arrived at the church to pick up their loved ones. On Monday afternoon, all remaining Terraces residents at the church were transported by Oakmont buses to a memory care community at Belmont in Albany and Fountaingrove Lodge residents were transported to Oakmont of Montecito in Concord. Residents resided at these temporary locations while restorations and repairs took place in Fountaingrove.
On Sunday, October 8, 2017, a staff member working the PM shift at Varenna detected smoke in the air and called 911. He was told there were wildfires in the distance but there was no need to evacuate residents at that time. After receiving a call regarding the power outage from maintenance staff after midnight on October 9, 2017, Nathan Condie, Executive Director of Oakmont of Varenna, arrived at the community.
Even though no evacuation order had been received, and based on his own assessment of the situation, Nathan began an evacuation in the early hours of October 9, 2017. Residents with cars were told to leave and take other residents with them, and to assemble at Coddingtown Mall. Staff was instructed to notify residents of the evacuation and assist them to the front of the main building.
Residents who did not leave in their own cars were shuttled to the mall assembly point by Oakmont staff. Additional staff continued to evacuate residents from all three buildings on the property. While shuttling residents to the predetermined assembly point, an employee told a sheriff stationed at Bicentennial and Mendocino that Oakmont needed urgent assistance to evacuate the remaining residents at Varenna.
Additional Oakmont staff who attempted to aid in the evacuations at Varenna were turned away at Bicentennial because Parker Hill Road had active fires on both sides of the road. At the corner of Mendocino and Fountaingrove Parkway, Oakmont staff explained to an apparent police volunteer why they needed immediate access. The police volunteer refused them entry and said emergency personnel would take responsibility for the evacuation of the remaining residents via city buses.
Oakmont team members again attempted to reach emergency dispatch via 911, but the line remained busy. After multiple attempts, Nathan spoke to the police and gave them the address for Varenna.
New Vintage Church in Santa Rosa was identified as the evacuation site for all Oakmont residents. Some city buses brought residents from Varenna to the Veterans Center. But several Oakmont team members redirected the buses to the New Vintage Church because it was feared the Veterans Center was too large and residents would become lost in the crowd.
At New Vintage Church, Oakmont staff members used the on-site kitchen to prepare a hot breakfast for the approximately 200 residents assembled there.
In the early morning, Nathan requested that Varenna employees return to the property to ensure that all residents had been safely evacuated. While driving back to Varenna on a back road that had not been blocked, staff noted propane tanks exploding, power lines down, and trees in the road. A fire extinguisher was used to put out flames in nearby bushes on the property.
They found one resident who had originally left in his car but returned. They escorted him to the van and double-checked all buildings. They found three residents who had not been evacuated by fire personnel, despite what appeared to be a very thorough search by emergency officials. They loaded the last residents into the van and took them to the church.
In the afternoon on Monday, October 9, 2017, Varenna residents who were at the church were transported in Oakmont vans and buses to Oakmont of Montecito in Concord.
Sadly, Fire Station #5, which is the closest fire station to the community and the designated fire station for the Fountaingrove area, was destroyed in the fire.
In the middle of the night on Sunday, October 8, 2017, the Med Tech on duty at Villa Capri called our Executive Director, Deborah Smith, to inform her that the power had gone out. Using flashlights and lanterns from emergency supplies, the staff checked on residents. The Med Tech called PG&E to report the power outage, and was informed a technician was en route to check on the power.
In the early morning hours of October 9th, one resident’s daughter arrived to pick up her father because she heard a fire was about two miles away. The Med Tech called Deborah who instructed her to call 911, and alert staff members of the impending evacuation. The Med Tech called 911 and was told a fast-moving fire was at Thomas Lake Harris Drive and they should evacuate immediately. The four staff who were on duty immediately brought the memory care residents to the front of the building first. Several other family members arrived and assisted.
While on her way to Villa Capri, Deborah could no longer reach the Med Tech. Deborah called Joel Ruiz, Regional Maintenance Specialist, and asked him to go to Villa Capri. Deborah also called her supervisor and other Villa Capri managers to notify them of the fire. However, Deborah was blocked from entering Old Redwood Highway from Mark West Springs/River Road, and called 911 to request emergency assistance in evacuating Villa Capri residents. The Fire Department told her that due to the 25 fires burning in the area, there were no resources to assist Villa Capri and the retirement community would need to evacuate the residents without their assistance.
Joel Ruiz called for additional help from other Oakmont Directors to immediately come to the community. Joel was stopped by a police officer at Bicentennial and Fountaingrove who denied him access. Joel forcefully explained the emergency situation at the community, and when he arrived at Villa Capri, the trees were on fire, it was very dark with heavy smoke, and flames were coming up the back of the building. Additionally, the power was out and staff were using flashlights and lanterns to escort residents to the lobby.
Four staff members and several family members in the building helped bring residents to the stairwell or the lobby as the residents were brought out of the apartments. Along with staff and family members, Joel and Pouya Ansari (Regional Maintenance Director who lived in Varenna employee housing) began going to each apartment and assisting residents.
By this time, fire was visible from windows at the back of the building. Staff and residents were assembling in the lobby. Residents were loaded into the Villa Capri bus to go to the Coddingtown Mall assembly point. Residents were also loaded into another Oakmont van, and a family member offered to drive it to the mall and return to continue evacuations. However, the family member was not allowed to return. Additional residents were loaded into family and staff vehicles.
Pouya left in his car to try to flag down help. At the bottom of the hill, he notified police officers of emergency evacuation of Villa Capri. Law enforcement would not allow Pouya to go back to Villa Capri due to the danger and informed him that they would take care of it, so he went to the church to assist evacuated residents.
Police cars and a city bus loaded up the remaining residents and delivered them to Elsie Allen High School. Joel arrived at the church, unloaded the bus, received instructions to go to the high school and the Veteran’s Center to retrieve residents and bring them to the church.
Villa Capri residents who were not picked up by family were transported to New Vintage Church. Jane Torres, Health Services Director at Villa Capri, accounted for all residents.
At the church, memory care residents were placed in a separate area for closer monitoring and to ensure comfort. Food and water was dropped off by the Red Cross, and Oakmont staff prepared a hot breakfast for everyone at the church.
In the afternoon of October 9th, all memory care residents were transported to Belmont in Albany, and the assisted living residents were transported to Oakmont Montecito in Concord in Oakmont buses and school buses that had been arranged for by Oakmont Management staff.