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California says nursing homes abandoned elderly during fire

[SAN FRANCISCO] As a firestorm descended on the Northern California city of Santa Rosa in October, staff members at two nursing homes abandoned their residents, many of them unable to walk and suffering from memory problems, according to a legal complaint filed by the California Department of Social Services.

The state agency is now seeking to close the facilities and strip the managers of their licenses.

While none of the residents died or were injured in the fire, the Department of Social Services accused the staff of being unprepared and leaving before everyone was taken to safety.

In one nursing home, Villa Capri, the complaint described staff members who had never participated in a fire drill, did not know the evacuation plan, could not find flashlights or batteries when the power went out and did not know where to find the keys to a bus that could have helped in the evacuation. One staff member searched in vain for the keys for an hour, the legal complaint said.

The last staff members left the facility sometime after 3am — leaving family members and emergency medical workers to take charge of evacuating the remaining 20 residents.

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"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," said the complaint, which was filed Tuesday.

The two facilities were in Fountaingrove, a wealthy enclave in the hills above Santa Rosa, the city worst hit by the October wildfires. More than 3,000 homes in Santa Rosa were destroyed in a fire so powerful that it lifted several vehicles off the ground in tornado-like conditions.

Oakmont Senior Living, the company that owns Villa Capri as well as Varenna, the other centre in the complaint, described a chaotic scene and an "unusual and extremely difficult circumstance", but one where its staff worked with emergency workers to move residents to safety.

"Many of our Oakmont residents and families, alongside emergency medical workers, worked hard to alert their neighbors and ensure they were also brought to safety," the company said on its website.

The vulnerability of older adults has been underlined during previous natural disasters like Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans in 2005 and Hurricane Irma last year when eight nursing home residents died in Florida.

Michael Weston, a spokesman for the state Department of Social Services, said Oakmont Senior Living had 15 days to appeal the department's order and request a hearing before an administrative law judge.

"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," Mr Weston said in an emailed statement.

The Department of Social Services also accused the nursing home operator of publishing inaccurate statements about the evacuation.

The legal filing notes that the company said that seven employees "successfully evacuated all residents at Villa Capri". The company described it as "a team effort led by staff, with help from family members".

"These are false and misleading statements," the agency said in its filing.


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