ABC 7 reports that 70 elderly residents of a senior living community in Santa Rosa were allegedly left behind by nursing staff as the fire continued to burn throughout the city. Those residents at the Varenna Oakmont Senior Living Community were eventually found, alive, by a brother and sister who had come to the facility in search of their grandfather.
RJ Kisling, the brother, recounted the story of his arrival on early Monday morning to ABC 7. He told them: "When I walked in and I saw those people and the looks on their faces I knew that I needed to be the answer." There were two women in the lobby, according to Kisling, and he assumed that they were employees who worked at the facility. He continued "They said, 'Are you the fire department are you here to help us?' And I said, 'I'm here to actually look for my grandfather.'"
After failing to find his grandfather, Kisling realized that the two women had left, leaving him to help the remaining residents. When firefighters arrived, they had to break down locked doors to find more residents. Kisling said, "The repeated question was, 'How come nobody came and got us?' 'How come nobody told us we were evacuating — and from the fire department — 'Where is the staff where is the master key?'"
As troubling as that is, here's where it gets sketchy. ABC 7 received a statement from the Oakmont Management Group, who oversees that community. They wrote: "While we were in the process of shuttling residents to a designated location, authorities refused to allow staff to reenter the area because of the existing danger, and indicated they would take responsibility for evacuating remaining residents." Captain Rainer Navarro of Santa Rosa Police Department responded to that statement, saying, "We were not stopping anybody from helping save lives that night. We had not set up any roadblocks at the time, we weren't preventing anyone from getting in at the time."
This morning, the Oakmont Management Group posted a statement to the Varenna at Fountaingrove Community website, which reads:
All Oakmont senior living residents are accounted for, safe, and settling into new living arrangements after wildfires forced evacuation of four assisted living and memory care communities in Santa Rosa.
Our primary goal is to ensure the safety of our residents and to reassure their families. We are proud of how well our staff, neighbors, residents' families and authoritizes worked together to simultaneously evacuate the four communities.
We are now assessing when the communities can be repaired or rebuilt so that our family of residents can return.
That all said, according to the Santa Rosa Press Democrat, the community of 163 units was "mostly untouched by flames, except for the north end of the building," while their "63-unit Oakmont of Villa Capri memory care center was destroyed." They say that the president and CEO of Oakmont Management Group issued a statement, which reads, in part: "Our focus continues to be on the care, welfare and safety of our residents and staff."
Since then, it's been a back and forth between the management group and the Santa Rosa Police Department, who still maintain that they didn't stop anybody from coming in to rescue anybody.
Though it's good to know that all 400 of the residents made it out okay, it's disheartening to see that the bulk of the 10 latest victims identified by officials today were more elderly. According to the Chron's report on the identified victims, among them are Arthur Tasman Grant, aged 95, Suiko Grant, aged 75, Carmen Caldentey Berriz, aged 75, Carol Collins-Swasey, aged 76, Lynne Anderson Powell, aged 72, Donna Mae Halbur, aged 80, Leroy Peter Halbur, aged 80, and Valerie Lynn Evans, aged 75. The other two identified victims were Michael John Dornbach and Veronica Elizabeth McCombs, aged 57 and 67, respectively.
The Chron also reports that there were four other victims who were identified earlier, two of whom were husband and wife Charles and Sara Rippey, aged 100 and 98, respectively. They were married for 75 years and died together in their home in Napa.
"The bulk of them are in their 70s and 80s, so there is that commonality," according to Sonoma County Sheriff Rob Giordano, who addressed reporters at a press conference, says the L.A. Times. Scott Alonso, spokesman for Sonoma County, also commented on the commonality: "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 wheelchair-bound, they may have access issues — those folks may take more care to evacuate safely."