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.
More business coverage of the North Bay fires: nbbj.news/2017fires