By Will Carruthers
A new book provides an in-depth account of the rescue of residents of two opulent Santa Rosa retirement care homes from the rapidly spreading Tubbs Fire in early October 2017.
Families of residents of the Villa Capri and Varenna care homes often shelled out over $10,000 per month for a room and full-time care at the facilities, which were built by developer and banker Bill Gallahers’ Oakmont Senior Living in the fire scar of the September 1964 Hanly Fire.
While the buildings were beautiful, the actual living conditions were subject to criticism, according to Inflamed: Abandonment, Heroism, and Outrage in Wine Country’s Deadliest Firestorm by Anne E. Belden and Paul Gullixson.
A lawsuit filed on behalf of four residents a month before the fires alleged that the Santa Rosa Oakmont facilities were understaffed, leaving residents at risk “of not having their care needs met and of suffering frustration, pain, discomfort, humiliation, and/or injury from inadequate care and supervision.”
During the fires, things turned dire. According to the book, the evacuation of the seniors was left at first to a few low-paid, largely unprepared night-shift employees, juggling multiple jobs in order to get by in the ever-more-expensive Wine Country. The final 105 residents, many unable to move on their own, were evacuated by family members and first responders.
The account of the lengthy, chaotic and harrowing evacuation eats up a large portion of the book, but a few images that illustrate the problems stick out. For instance, as flames became visible from Villa Capri, a large bus sat in the parking lot, inoperable because none of the staff on duty knew where the keys were.
Although none of the residents ultimately died in the fires, residents and their family members were understandably left traumatized, and several residents passed away in the weeks and months after the evacuation.
The book is based on interviews with more than 100 sources. Although Gallaher and employees of his companies did not agree to on-the-record interviews, Belden and Gullixson quote from depositions given by some company officials in the various lawsuits which followed the Tubbs Fire.
Inflamed rightfully touts the actions of those who risked their lives in the fires. However, by the end of the book, this reader was mostly left with a deep disappointment in the legislative and justice systems’ response to the problems highlighted by the Oakmont residents’ traumatic experiences.
When Oakmont faced multiple lawsuits and investigations by government agencies relating to the fires, the companies lawyered up, flatly denying the numerous allegations against them and successfully avoiding any jury trials. As part of the various settlements, the companies agreed to pay fines, accept additional oversight for a few years and make changes—some of them temporary—to their management practices.
Ultimately, Gallaher companies were allowed to rebuild and reopen the Santa Rosa facilities. Elsewhere, Oakmont Senior Living has continued to expand, becoming the 27th-largest senior living company in the country in 2022.
Belden and Gullixson are scheduled to appear at the Copperfield’s Books Santa Rosa store at 7pm on Friday, Nov. 3, and at Readers’ Books in Sonoma at 6pm on Wednesday, Nov. 8.