All day Sunday, October 8th, strong winds blew throughout Northern California, pushing wildfires over hills and through canyons all over the North Bay. In Napa and Sonoma counties, hundreds, and then thousands, of people lost their homes. Through the night, winds blew wildfires toward almost 900 elderly people living at the California Veterans Home in Yountville.
Power went out across the valley. Backup generators at the veterans home kicked in to power the licensed care facilities and the main dining room, where independent living veterans from throughout the 500-acre campus gathered while their own rooms were dark. The leadership team and staff at the veterans home passed out lanterns and air quality masks to protect residents and workers from the dense smoke.
At the same time, CalVet headquarters in Sacramento initiated emergency response processes, even preparing to evacuate the veterans home if that became necessary. Coordination with the Governor’s Office of Emergency Services was a priority, both to stay abreast of the fire threat and to ensure that emergency responders understood what the veterans home was facing.
By 9:30 a.m., Governor Brown had declared a state of emergency in five counties. All day Monday and Tuesday the fires grew rapidly on three sides of the veterans home. The air in the Napa Valley was filled with smoke and ash, causing breathing problems for everyone.
With almost 200 patients in skilled nursing and memory care, many unable to walk or even sit up, the risk of evacuation was nearly as great as the risk of fire, but the air quality and the age of our skilled nursing facility, the Holderman building were the deciding factors. Tuesday afternoon, the decision was made to relocate the most vulnerable residents out of the area for their safety.
Throughout the afternoon, CalVet staff identified 80 of the most medically-fragile patients and worked with emergency managers at the Napa County Office of Emergency Services to relocate them. This involved identifying skilled nursing facilities that could take them in, preparing their medications and medical information to go with them, and arranging for ambulances to transport them safely.
That evening, as the first residents were being readied for transport in ambulances lining the roads at the veterans home, the fire danger suddenly increased and the county ordered an immediate full evacuation of the entire Yountville campus.
While dozens more ambulances rolled onto the grounds and began loading all 151 SNF residents from the Holderman building, buses that had been pre-staged in the early hours of the emergency, rolled up to transport independent living residents to an evacuation center. Since many of the residents in independent living quarters have their own transportation, making sure we knew who was self-evacuating and where they would be was an important complicating factor.
The full evacuation order was lifted within the hour, however CalVet and local authorities continued to evacuate the full SNF as a precaution because it was clear that getting the remaining patients out of Holderman would take a lot of time if another evacuation was ordered. Thirteen residents were able to be cared for in another building at the veterans home and another six were taken to our Redding Veterans Home. The remaining 132 residents were taken to 22 different SNFs throughout the region from Sacramento to the South Bay.
With word of the evacuation spreading throughout the region, reporters and news vans arrived and residents’ family members called to find out where their loved ones were. As an agency, we worked to provide information about the status of the home and also to reassure the public through the media that all residents were safe and would remain so.
For the next week, the veterans home was under siege. Fires would approach and retreat with no regularity other than the movement of the wind. CalFire stationed dedicated engines and crews on the campus, with firefighters eating and sleeping at the historic Borman Baseball Field. They used bulldozers to reinforce an existing firebreak in the hills above and to the west of the campus, making it “wider than I-5” – and they cut a back-up line, just in case.
Lifting their own spirits as well as ours, the firefighters visited our veterans in the dining room when they got a break. In one of many inspiring moments that week, a crew from San Bernardino County Fire climbed to Veterans Peak and re-posted a flag the veterans maintain there, and which had blown over in the high winds that brought in the fire. A social media post acknowledging their effort received the most shares and likes of any post in CalVet history by far.
Neighbors and local businesses, which have always been so supportive of the veterans home, offered up help however they could. Three Yountville restaurants – Bouchon Bakery, Ad Hoc and Botega – donated food and supplies for staff and residents. The Tug McGraw Foundation, which is headquartered on the campus and is always a wonderful partner for us, helped support our veterans and took care of the firefighters who were protecting the home.
In addition to keeping veterans’ family members and the Yountville community informed about the status of the veterans home via regular social media updates, the CalVet public information staff responded to dozens of media inquiries, provided regular updates throughout the day to the veterans on-site during mealtimes, and created a fire information webpage with resources for veterans throughout the North Bay who were affected by the fires.
CalVet’s Veteran Services Division dedicated staff members to support eight local assistance centers in the affected counties to help veterans affected by the fires to access their military records and ensure that benefits were not interrupted. They were also able to connect veterans and their families with resources from the veterans service community to help them get back on their feet.
At the same time, CalVet’s Farm and Home Loan program was able to use fire mapping technology to identify at-risk homes that had loans through the program. CalVet staff contacted the veteran homeowners at risk to make sure they knew that most CalVet Home Loan properties are insured by us with guaranteed replacement cost for the property at a low deductible. In addition, veterans with a CalVet home loan who were evacuated would likely qualify for temporary living expenses.
Veterans home staff and leadership at CalVet headquarters had multiple responsibilities vying for their attention. While they were working 24 hours a day protecting the health and safety of the 650 residents still on the campus, they were also planning for the return of 130 veterans who were relocated to other facilities. Under oversight of the state Department of Public Health, the Holderman building was cleaned, air filters replaced, and beds readied throughout the campus.
On October 18th, the fires were under control and the skies had cleared enough to bring our veterans home. Staff at the veterans home, though they were exhausted from two weeks of constant work, found the energy to give a rousing welcome to every veteran as they returned.
Throughout the crisis, more than 100 CalVet staff members from Sacramento and from our other seven veterans homes across the state voluntarily went to the Yountville campus to relieve exhausted workers and provide extra hands. Their unselfish dedication to our veterans, and their extraordinary willingness to help in any capacity needed was a critical part of the agency’s successful response to the worst natural threat CalVet has faced.