Workers entered a locked-down fire zone in Santa Rosa last week with an excavator and dump trucks and began demolishing a Fountaingrove senior care facility before the ruins had been searched for bodies and toxic materials, according to city and county officials.
Santa Rosa police halted the work at Oakmont of Villa Capri the day after it began Oct. 17 without necessary clearance from the city, according to officials with the Santa Rosa Fire Department and county Department of Health Services. The agencies are investigating the demolition and debris removal.
The investigation follows separate probes launched by the state into evacuations at three Oakmont Senior Living facilities during the fire — Villa Capri, Oakmont of Varenna and Fountaingrove Lodge. Only Villa Capri burned down.
Authorities did not have a chance to search for human remains in the rubble of Villa Capri, most of which was gone when they halted work on the evening of Oct. 18. Police said they posted National Guard troops at the 1397 Fountain Grove Parkway property and sent detectives to the Petaluma disposal site where debris from the facility had been dumped. There, they also posted troops through the night to guard the pile.
Detectives later worked off rosters to confirm that all residents and staff survived the fire, Santa Rosa Police Sgt. Josh Ludtke said.
The Fire Department knows of no other company in the city that has removed debris from the fire zone without authorization, Fire Chief Tony Gossner said.
An executive with Oakmont Senior Living said he believed the company had permission to carry out the work.
“We were very much trying to act in good faith and do what was required of us, and we did,” said Komron Shahhosseini, director of site acquisition and development for Oakmont Senior Living.
City and county officials, however, said the company did not have the proper permits to demolish the 63-unit memory care facility and remove the debris while search teams were still scouring the hilltop neighborhood for bodies.
“There have been no authorizations to remove any debris or clean up any property. Villa Capri was potentially removing hazardous waste before any cleanup objectives have been defined,” said Paul Lowenthal, Santa Rosa assistant fire marshal.
Almost none of that work has begun countywide as residents and business owners await government surveys for hazardous materials and other steps to play out in the cleanup process.
The excavator’s presence — documented last week in a Press Democrat photo — on the Fountain Grove Parkway site, along with dump trucks, was conspicuous in an area that had been evacuated. Only police, fire, utility crews and press were allowed past armed checkpoints in the days following the deadly Oct. 8 firestorm.
“The incident was still in lockdown,” Lowenthal said. “How they got through, I can’t speak to that.”
Some relatives of residents who learned of the work voiced outrage it had proceeded without them having the chance to go through the debris and retrieve any valuables or other personal belongings.
“They didn’t give me the opportunity,” said Mark Allen of Sebastopol, whose mother was living at Villa Capri.
“It might not have made much difference. I just figured anything there was a total loss,” Allen said.
The Santa Rosa Fire Department said it is investigating potential violations of local rules that require permits for demolition in the aftermath of a fire.
The county said it is examining the disposal of waste that could include toxic materials. City and county officials confirmed Wednesday no permission had been granted for the debris removal at Villa Capri.
“They don’t have a waiver or a permit with the Department of Health Services or any county entity that I’m aware of,” said department spokesman Scott Alonso.
Before police halted the work, crews had removed three‑quarters of the remnants of the two‑story building, which sat on the north side of Fountain Grove Parkway next to the larger Oakmont of Varenna senior residential facility.
Shahhosseini, the Oakmont executive, disputed public officials’ findings and said the work was done with proper permission. A firm hired by the company to remove the debris had been given an emergency permit waiver from the Sonoma County Department of Health Services, he said.
Shahhosseini on Tuesday said he wasn’t aware of the city and county investigations. In response to questions about the demolition and debris removal, Shahhosseini cited general miscommunication in the aftermath of the emergency and Oakmont’s desire to get residents back into its facilities.
“We’re not trying to blame anybody, and we feel that we probably shouldn’t be blamed in this either,” Shahhosseini said.
Tests conducted on the debris found it was clean, Shahhosseini said.
Oakmont Senior Living was founded in 1997 by Sonoma County developer Bill Gallaher, who operates 23 senior living facilities in California from Redding to San Diego, including four in Fountaingrove. Gallaher, who lost his own home in the fire, was not available for comment this week.
Shahhosseini on Wednesday provided The Press Democrat with a copy of a county waiver for solid waste transfer dated Oct. 11 and addressed to a Windsor disposal company. It didn’t mention demolition work or any address tied to the Oakmont sites in Fountaingrove. He did not respond to a follow-up request for explanation.
“This is not a waiver for Oakmont,” said Alonso, the county health spokesman. “The facility or the residential home would need a permit with the city of Santa Rosa to begin with.”
That permit was not obtained for the work last week, said Lowenthal. Such permits are a standard requirement for clearing fire debris, he said.
Oakmont Senior Living officials said Oct. 9 that all four of their senior living facilities in the area had been evacuated safely. The state is now investigating whether three facilities — Villa Capri, Varenna and Fountaingrove Lodge — followed their formal evacuation procedures.
Relatives of people living in the complex have said some residents were abandoned by staff as the flames descended on Santa Rosa.
On Oct. 10, in a more detailed statement, a spokeswoman for subsidiary Oakmont Management Group said residents who did not leave with family and friends were temporarily relocated to another Oakmont Senior Living facility and a partner facility in the East Bay.
“Our focus continues to be on the care, welfare and safety of our residents and staff,” Chris Kasulka, president and CEO of Oakmont Management Group, said in a statement.
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