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Two retirement homes abandoned residents during wine country fires, California officials say

California officials are trying to revoke the licenses of two Santa Rosa retirement facilities over their handling of last October’s wildfire emergency, alleging that administrators and staffers abandoned residents.

None of the residents of the two facilities died, as family members and emergency personnel evacuated them, according to a complaint released Thursday by the state Department of Social Services. At one of the facilities, four residents slept through the evacuation and didn’t learn until the next morning that everyone else had left, the report said.

In an administrative complaint, the department sought to pull the licenses of an 80-resident facility known as Villa Capri and a neighboring sister facility, the Varenna at Fountaingrove. In addition, the department wants to permanently ban Deborah Smith, then-administrator of Villa Capri, and Nathan Condie, administrator of the Varenna, from operating a retirement facility. The facilities are controlled by a group of limited liability companies led by Oakmont Senior Living LLC.

“Based on evidence gathered during the investigations and the statements of witnesses, the Department has determined that Oakmont Senior Living failed to protect the health and safety of residents at Varenna and Villa Capri,” department spokesman Michael Weston said in an email. “The Department served Oakmont Senior Living with legal notice to revoke the licenses of Varenna and Villa Capri and to exclude the administrators of both facilities for life.”

He said the company has 15 days to respond to the allegations.

Oakmont Senior Living flatly denied the allegations in a statement to The Sacramento Bee. “The night of the Tubbs fire, we voluntarily began evacuating residents after we were repeatedly unable to reach emergency authorities on clogged 911 phone lines. We never received an official evacuation order from emergency authorities. All 418 residents were safely evacuated. We are immensely grateful for the heroic lifesaving efforts of our employees and their families, neighbors, residents and their families, and emergency authorities.”

Oakmont operates 24 other retirement communities in California and Nevada, including four under the Oakmont brand in the Sacramento area: Carmichael, Fair Oaks, Roseville and Folsom.

The complaint portrays a harrowing incident the night of the wine country fires, which killed 44 people and destroyed more than $9 billion worth of property. The Tubbs Fire, which destroyed entire neighborhoods in Santa Rosa, was the worst of the fires that roared through Northern California’s wine country last October.

While the Varenna facility survived the fire and remains open, Villa Capri burned down and is still shuttered. Its website said it hopes to reopen in 18 months.

Condie is executive director of the Varenna, while Smith is now assistant executive director of that facility, according to the retirement home’s website.

Although staff members were able to evacuate many of Villa Capri’s residents in their personal cars, other “elder and infirm” residents had to be rescued by family members and first responders.

“If these family members and emergency responders had not evacuated Villa Capri residents, more than 20 residents would have perished when Villa Capri burned to the ground after all staff left the facility,” the state’s report said.

The report said a substitute administrator, Marie So, was in charge the night of the fire and wasn’t familiar with the facility’s evacuation plan. “She did not utilize Villa Capri’s emergency binder during the evacuation, did not know where keys for facility vehicles were kept, where flashlights were kept, or where batteries for flashlights were kept, nor did she know how to direct the staff she was supervising during the emergency,” the report said.

At the nearby Varenna facility, touted on its website as a “luxury retirement community,” 228 residents were being cared for the night of the fire. The on-site staff wasn’t trained for fires or evacuations. Three staffers proceeded to begin evacuating residents from their rooms when Condie arrived and told them to return them to their rooms.

Condie said “he did not want to cause issues or make trouble” for the three companies that control the facility, according to the report. He left the facility without telling staff he was departing or providing further instructions. The three staff members left as well.

Family members showed up soon after and began evacuating residents on their own. Emergency responders showed up, “kicked in locked doors throughout the facility and alerted sleeping residents,” the report said. As many as 100 residents were eventually evacuated, including some who use walkers or wheelchairs.

Editor’s note (Sept. 7): This story has been updated to include an Oakmont statement provided late Thursday.