Veterans Home evacuation in Yountville

The Veterans Home of California in Yountville used Napa Vine buses and ambulances to begin evacuating more than 1,000 residents and its staff Tuesday night, after the Nuns Fire drew closer to the area from Sonoma County.

Howard Yune, Register

YOUNTVILLE — The Veterans Home of California, the state’s largest home for retired military members and their spouses, began a total evacuation of residents and staff Tuesday night after wildfires edged closer to Yountville — only to have most of them brought back within hours.

As of late morning Wednesday, the 137 Veterans Home residents who were moved from the Holderman building’s skilled nursing center were being cared for at 24 different care centers, mostly in the Bay Area but also including a Sacramento facility and another Veterans Home nursing center in Redding, according to June Iljana, a CalVet spokeswoman.

Initially, the Veterans Home assembled a wheeled fleet that included dozens of Napa County Vine buses, private cars and ambulances from at least four counties as night fell, in preparation for carrying all of the more than 1,000 residents from the 133-year-old campus. Residents and staff members on the grounds reported many of the evacuees were to be taken south to Napa Valley College, which opened its gymnasium to those fleeing a cluster of wildfires that erupted Sunday night.

However, the plans later changed, and the state Department of Veterans Affairs, which operates the facility, announced on Twitter that only those in its skilled nursing facility would remain off campus as a precaution.

“All residents who have voluntarily evacuated the Home are welcome to return. We understand your concern for your loved ones. This is a rapidly developing situation, and we are doing our best to keep you informed,” officials said.

Iljana said the Napa County Office of Emergency Services instructed CalVet to move residents off the grounds after Cal Fire determined an eastward shift of the Nuns Fire from Sonoma County could threaten the facility. Residents were returned after winds shifted and reduced the danger, she said Wednesday morning.

“We are not out of danger in this situation, and that building (Holderman) is difficult to evacuate because of the age of the building and the age of its residents, many of whom are not mobile,” she said. “We did not want to leave this to chance. (The fire risk) is hard on the residents. Our greatest concern is the burden it’s been on our residents.”

A social worker is based at the Veterans Home’s incident command center to take calls from family members seeking information on residents. Inquiries can be made around the clock at 707-944-4700.

Earlier on Tuesday, Abraham Stewart, an incident commander at the Veterans Home, said he and home staff were notified at 3 p.m. by the state Office of Emergency Services of the possible need to clear out the premises because the age and physical frailty of many of its residents would make a quick flight from danger difficult.

Vehicles began arriving in Yountville at 4 p.m., and had been slated to continue ferrying evacuees through the night and into early Wednesday morning, said Stewart, an operations manager for the Falck Northern California emergency transport service. Ambulances traveled to the Yountville home from Napa, Sonoma, Alameda and Santa Clara counties.

The shelter at Napa Valley College, where up to 110 people were staying on its first day, is not equipped to care for those with serious medical issues, said college spokesman Doug Ernst.

As of midday Wednesday, no evacuation orders have been announced for the town of Yountville east of the Veterans Home.

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During Tuesday night’s evacuation, public buses were lined up outside various buildings at the Veterans Home, where the sharp tang of wood smoke pierced the air. Clusters of men and women were queued to wait their turn – many in motorized carts and some clutching satchels in their bags containing a few belongings. Orderlies at the home stood by some of the passengers-to-be.

While some residents were unable to move quickly toward the waiting buses, others would not.

“Sir, come on! For your safety, you need to leave the grounds!” a deputy implored a man outside the Holderman building, a former hospital.

“I’m really sorry,” the man said quietly. “I believe in my Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, and I believe he will protect me.”

“And we want to protect you,” replied an orderly holding a wheelchair. “We just want to make sure you’re safe.”

Earlier, the Napa Valley Transportation Authority had announced the suspension of all Vine bus service until further notice to devote all vehicles to the Veterans Home evacuation. On Wednesday, the NVTA said a partial bus schedule was scheduled to resume.

This story has been modified since a previous posting to state that the Napa County Office of Emergency Services gave the instruction to start an evacuation of the Veterans Home of California in Yountville, according to the state Department of Veterans Affairs.

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Howard Yune covers the city of Napa and the town of Yountville. He has been a reporter and photographer for the Register since 2011, and previously wrote for the Marysville Appeal-Democrat, Anaheim Bulletin and Coos Bay (Oregon) World.