Emergency systems shift in reponse to North Bay fires

10/19/2017

As dry heat and fierce winds give way to higher humidity and even a chance of rain, West Marin residents—many of whom provided emergency assistance to those fleeing fires raging in nearby counties—may be feeling some relief. Yet Marin County firefighters remain on high alert, as many of the county’s resources are still deployed and those who lost their homes continue to need help. 

At least 210,000 acres have been charred, 5,700 structures reduced to ruins and 42 people killed since fires ignited last Sunday evening, making the combined fires of Sonoma, Napa, Lake, Solano and Mendocino Counties the deadliest in California history. Since 1932, only a handful have reached greater acreage; the largest burned 315,000 acres in Lassen County in 2012 and did not take lives. Some estimate the damages from the recent fires are worth $3 billion and climbing. 

Air quality, which fluctuates daily between good, moderate, unhealthy for sensitive groups, unhealthy and even very unhealthy, as rated by the Environmental Protection Agency, remains a concern across the state. Around 100,000 people have been displaced to date, though many of the evacuees are now able to return home, if they still have homes to return to. 

West Marin moved fast to host the first waves of evacuees, which flooded to the coast early last Monday morning. People flocked to the Dance Palace, where many spent the first night. Evacuees also stayed at the Marconi Conference Center, the San Geronimo Community Center and Lawson’s Landing. Tomales Bay Resort hosted a number of people at no cost and Tomales High School and St. Columba’s Episcopal Church offered showers. 

Lynn Axelrod, who coordinates the Point Reyes Disaster Council, which serves much of West Marin, said the area was “prepared to be a disaster zone, and we turned into an evacuation zone.” The council, which formed after severe flooding in 1982, was forced to improvise. Since kids were in school on Monday, for instance, evacuees needed to go elsewhere. Marconi was one of three shelters designated by the council, along with West Marin School and St. Columba’s. 

Supervisor Dennis Rodoni said he got a green light on Monday from the county’s Office of Emergency Services for the pop-up shelters in West Marin to keep their doors open as long as they were “self-sufficient and self-sustaining,” he said. Daily conference calls enabled county officials and representatives from all the shelters to discuss the ever-evolving situation. “There was a need and so we opened up and met that need. We proved that we are a resilient community,” he added. 

Marconi’s general manager, Hal Russek, said the center hosted around 120 people last week but that the number was down 10 or 12 this week, as most evacuees returned home or found family or friends to stay with. Donations also flooded in; Tomales Bay and Hog Island Oyster Companies, the Marshall Store and many others donated food. 

Local businesses jumped in to provide assistance in myriad ways, despite being directly affected by the fires through their staff and stalled deliveries. The Palace Market is still offering a discount to firefighters and evacuees and joined the Cabaline, Toby’s Feed Barn and Building Supply to donate feed and other goods to an animal evacuation center in Santa Rosa.

Ms. Axelrod said the keywords of the past 10 days were “improvise” and “fluid situation.” Last Monday morning, she thought, “These fires are popping up and spreading. Are we next, right now?” Since Marin has been largely under a red flag alert, Ms. Axelrod said she had to keep in mind which resources could be used for evacuees and which had to be kept open for residents should the need occur.  

Anita Tyrrell-Brown, the fire chief in Bolinas, said people are under a false sense of security that something like this can’t happen on the coast. “The Mount Vision fire proved that wrong,” she said. “What we are seeing up north is a once-in-several-lifetimes fire. It’s burning through areas never expected to burn… and it’s burning them to the ground. Out here, with so much vegetation, people need to be aware that something of that scale could also happen.”

An average of five Bolinas staffers have been working each day since the fires broke out last week, compared to the usual two. An estimated 11,000 firefighters, many from other states and some even from Australia, are now battling flames in California. In a press release last week, Marin County reported that six strike teams with five fire vehicles each have been deployed to the North Bay fires.

Marin County Sheriff’s Sergeant Brennan Collins said about 20 officers from Marin have been going up to Sonoma every night and day since the county requested mutual aid on Oct. 9. “It’s home for everyone, so they don’t mind doing it,” he said of his colleagues, who are volunteering their overtime to assisting at intersections, blocking out evacuation zones, patrolling for looters and helping with evacuations for those with special needs. 

Ian Adams, a paramedic for Marin County Fire and a Sonoma resident, said he has been working every day since the fires broke out, despite the fact that his own family was evacuated. Mr. Adams was posted to Point Reyes Station last week along with four others from Woodacre to fill in for firefighters who were deployed, following protocol to keep local fire stations fully staffed. “As much as we would like to be at the fires, we realize we have a job here to protect our county,” Mr. Adams said. “We know we are here for the right reason.”

This week, small fires broke out—and were quickly contained—in Novato and Sausalito.

Mr. Adams said the word from his colleagues on the frontlines was that the first two or three days were the toughest as they waited for backup resources to arrive. Now they are alternating 24 hours on and off. “They are rested, ready to go, and have positive attitudes,” he said. “This is part of our job; this is what we signed up for.” 

As for people who are outside of the disaster areas, “they may feel they aren’t doing enough,” Point Reyes Station resident Roy Pitts, who volunteers for the Red Cross and the Inverness fire department, said. “But in my experience, the best thing is to help people to return to their rituals and their routines again.”

Supervisor Rodoni is also starting to think about the future. “There are still a lot of people that need a lot of help and support,” he said. “I encourage people to make rooms available in their homes if possible, and for the short-term rental market to consider transitioning to long-term rentals for the next year or two. The area is going to be really short of housing.”