Santa Rosa senior home resident alleges she was abandoned during firestorm

A 94-year-old woman is the latest to sue Oakmont Senior Living, claiming the company failed to evacuate residents from its senior care facilities in Santa Rosa during the October wildfires.|

A 94-year-old Santa Rosa woman who alleges she was abandoned in her bed along with other elderly residents of Varenna at Fountaingrove as the October wildfires raged all around them is suing the facility’s owner, Oakmont Senior Living, claiming the company made no effort to evacuate her.

Barbara Jeanne Pierce is the latest assisted living facility resident to sue Oakmont Senior Living in the wake of the blazes that raged across Sonoma County, killing 24 people and destroying 5,130 homes.

In November, a group from neighboring Villa Capri sued Oakmont, alleging employees left behind at least a third of the nearly 70 senior residents, including some with dementia. They escaped with the help of family members before the facility burned to the ground.

Pierce, who lived next door at Varenna, is making similar claims. Her 19-page suit filed Monday in Sonoma County Superior Court says Oakmont employees “made no effort to ensure she did not die alone in her apartment during the fire.”

At least three Varenna residents were left behind during the fires and awoke in their beds in the abandoned facility late the next morning, after Villa Capri, just yards away, had been destroyed, according to the suit.

Pierce, who is hearing impaired and uses both a walker and a wheelchair, was rescued overnight by a man checking on his grandfather, according to the suit.

It describes a harrowing experience in which Pierce lay awake in bed, unable to get out or go to the bathroom as smoke filled the building.

She was discovered by R.J. Kisling, who arrived at Varenna about 3:45 a.m. on Oct. 9 to find trees and shrubs on fire outside the facility. No lights were on and a handful of the facility’s 200 residents - who assumed he was a first responder - were standing in the lobby, according to the suit.

He donned a headlamp and began running up and down the smoky hallways, at first looking for his grandfather and later helping to escort 80 residents out of their apartments, carrying some down stairs.

At some point, he entered Pierce’s room.

He learned the woman had soiled herself, so he got a private caregiver to give her an adult diaper, and then helped her out of the building and onto a city bus, which took her to a shelter, the lawsuit said.

Except for a brief time when he first arrived, Kisling saw no Varenna employees on the property, the suit said. His wife, Steffany, who arrived an hour later, reported the same thing, the suit said.

“The crux of the case is the defendants abandoned these elders,” attorney Kathryn Stebner said.

Oakmont Senior Living was founded in 1997 by Sonoma County developer Bill Gallaher and managed by Oakmont Management Group. Neither company officials nor their lawyer, Alex Giovanniello, returned calls Tuesday seeking comment. In a statement last October when similar allegations first surfaced, the company said public safety agencies prevented staff from returning to the building to evacuate remaining residents during the fires.

The suit is the latest in a stream of post-fire litigation against Oakmont Senior Living.

Last month, Stebner amended her suit against Villa Capri to add two wrongful death claims. Two residents - Elizabeth Budow, 92, and Virginia Gunn, 82 - died two months after the fire.

Budow, who was blind and suffered dementia, broke a hip in a fall at an evacuation shelter and died Dec. 11. Gunn, who was bedridden with colon cancer, suffered extreme emotional distress from her ordeal and died Dec. 18, Stebner said.

Stebner said trauma from their escape from the second floor hastened their deaths. The evacuation is under state investigation.

At the same time, she accused Oakmont of attempting to silence its own employees by offering them $750 to $1,500 to say they were unaware the company broke any laws.

Like Villa Capri, Varenna did not have an adequate evacuation plan, Stebner claims. At most, three Varenna staff members were responsible for evacuating more than 200 residents, many of whom had vision and hearing impairments, used walkers, canes and wheelchairs, or were otherwise disabled, according to the suit.

Residents’ families were forced fill the void, going door-to-door to help Pierce and others escape.

The suit alleges Oakmont managers told Varenna staff to turn off fire alarms as the blaze approached around 11 p.m., leading many residents to believe they were not in danger until 2 a.m.

“The residents were gasping and choking from smoke in the building,” the lawsuit said.

It further claims the facility lost power during the fire and there were no backup generators to operate elevators for residents with disabilities who lived on the upper floors and could not safely walk down stairs. Among other things, the suit alleges elder abuse, negligence false imprisonment and intentional inflictions of emotional distress.

Varenna reopened Nov. 22, according to the suit.

You can reach Staff Writer Paul Payne at 707-568-5312 or On Twitter @ppayne.

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