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State investigation launched into fire evacuation at Oakmont Senior Living complex in Santa Rosa

A wheelchair sits amidst the rubble of Villa Capri at Varenna, the assisted living and memory care unit in the Fountaingrove senior facility in Santa Rosa. Varenna is being investigated by the Dept. of Social Services for allegedly leaving behind residents when staff evacuated during the Tubbs fire. (photo by John Burgess/The Press Democrat)

J.D. MORRIS,

A Santa Rosa senior living complex is under investigation by state regulators amid reports staff allegedly left numerous residents behind last week as a deadly firestorm raged through Sonoma County.

A spokesman for the California Department of Social Services said Tuesday his agency is investigating the evacuations of Oakmont Senior Living’s adjoining Varenna and Villa Capri facilities off Fountain Grove Parkway. Multiple residents of the complex and their family members have said residents were abandoned by staff Oct. 9 as flames descended on Santa Rosa, though department spokesman Michael Weston could not say whether those reports prompted the investigation.

As a routine matter, the department is reviewing the evacuations of all licensed care facilities whose residents were displaced by the wildfires. The Oakmont case is a formal investigation, Weston said.

The firestorm impacted all four of Oakmont Senior Living’s Santa Rosa facilities, according to the company’s website. Villa Capri was destroyed.

Crystal Robinson, vice president of sales and marketing for subsidiary Oakmont Management Group, said in an email the company has “been extremely busy attending to the welfare and safety of our residents,” all 430 of whom are “accounted for, safe, and settling into new living arrangements.”

“Their safety always has been — and always will be — our first priority,” Robinson said in an email.

Weston could not elaborate further on the nature of the investigations or exactly how they started, but he said they began after the fires ignited.

If authorities find fault on the part of the senior living complex, possible consequences could range from citations to a required correction plan to, at the most severe level, a licensing revocation, according to Weston. He could not estimate how long the investigations would take to complete.

“Because you’re dealing with a disaster area and individuals that were involved are scattered throughout Northern California, it could take some time,” Weston said.

The senior complex “voluntarily evacuated” as the fire approached and staff members couldn’t reach authorities “because 911 and nonemergency lines were clogged,” Robinson said.

“We are cooperating fully with regulatory agencies on this matter,” she said in the email.

Rohnert Park resident Tanja Werle said as the fires raged in the early hours that morning, she worried about her grandmother, an 86-year old Varenna resident who had not yet been evacuated. Werle asked her ex- boyfriend, a Santa Rosa police detective, to check on her grandmother, who had also grown concerned as time passed.

“She could see fire coming down the hill,” Werle, 35, said in an interview. “She could see it right out her window. It was really smoky and she just started to panic.”

Werle said her grandmother, Katheryn Mann, was afraid of evacuating in darkness down the staircase leading out of Varenna’s third floor, where Mann lived.

Werle said her ex-boyfriend estimated he found about 40 to 50 people in the Varenna lobby when he arrived on scene about 4:15 a.m., though Mann estimated a lower number.

The detective and his partner put a gas mask on Mann, carried her downstairs and helped her into the detective’s truck, in which he evacuated a few other seniors before going back for more, Werle said. They saw one or two people who appeared to be maintenance workers but no staff members in the building, according to Werle.

Varenna representatives did not call to check on Mann until Monday evening, Werle said.

“It’s just ridiculous,” she said. “They should have some kind of system for ensuring that everyone is evacuated, everyone is accounted for, and a plan in place for if they can’t track somebody down. It’s just not OK.”

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Werle previously spoke of her grandmother’s ordeal to ABC7 News, which first reported the story last week.

In the company statement, Robinson said staff was prevented by authorities from evacuating everyone.

“While our staff was in the process of shuttling our residents to safety, emergency authorities at several entry locations refused to let multiple staff members re-enter,” she said in the email. “A District Director at another nearby senior living facility informed us that he came across the same roadblocks and was refused entry to the area.”

Authorities indicated they would evacuate the remaining residents and the company was “aware that at least one city bus was en route to our community for that purpose,” according to Robinson’s statement. She said staff members stayed in contact with authorities and an Oakmont Senior Living executive staff member who was on location evacuated the final residents — a point Werle disputes.

Santa Rosa Police Chief Hank Schreeder said his department had not yet had a chance to review the situation.

“We know we had about 13 people up there,” he said. “What went on around on the streets and things like that is all part of what we’ll end up reviewing down the road.”

While Mann was doing better this week, the incident left its mark, according to Werle.

“She’s really shaken,” Werle said. “She said it was like the scariest experience she’s ever gone through.”

You can reach Staff Writer J.D. Morris at 707-521-5337 or jd.morris@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @thejdmorris.