West Marin opens doors to fire evacuees

David Briggs
Rodolfo Fernandez, left, and his family fled Santa Rosa for Point Reyes Station on Monday morning after waking up their neighbors and alerting them to the fire. With masks from Building Supply, they headed to the Dance Palace for shelter.  
10/12/2017

Hundreds of people fleeing the ongoing fires ravaging the North Bay took shelter in West Marin this week. Evacuees sought refuge at the Dance Palace and San Geronimo Community Centers; others were invited into churches, businesses, hotels and private homes, many in shock over their sudden losses. 

Eight fires took hold in the North Bay Sunday, driven by high winds, low humidity and parched vegetation and leading to the evacuation of 20,000 residents. In Sonoma and Napa Counties, the Tubbs Fire had scorched 27,000 acres and killed 11 people by Wednesday, making it the sixth deadliest fire in the state’s history.

A total of 524 evacuees took shelter at Marin County’s main relief center on Monday night.

As of Wednesday, 3,500 homes and commercial structures had been destroyed across the state and less than five percent of the fires in the North Bay had been contained. The Marin County Fire Department had sent 22 engines, five ambulances and a hand crew to assist, including an engine from Point Reyes Station.

Red flag warnings were issued throughout Northern California on Wednesday due to gusty winds and low humidity. 

By the time a copper-colored sun rose in Point Reyes Station on Monday, the Bovine Bakery had been functioning as an impromptu disaster relief shelter for over an hour. When employee Laura Scott arrived downtown at around 5:30 a.m., she was met by a familiar customer. 

“He appeared at the door and said he evacuated his family from Rohnert Park. And then there were a whole lot of people standing near the gas station,” she said. “As soon as we opened up a little later, the place was filled with people. It looked like the zombie apocalypse, with all these people wrapped in blankets. I kept asking where they were from and they all said Santa Rosa. They were all stunned.”

By mid-morning, the streets were lined with cars and trucks filled with families. Building Supply and the West Marin Pharmacy had sold all their respirator masks to people hoping to block the smoke and toxins carried in the air. 

Matt Willis, the county’s public health officer, said on Wednesday that the air quality in Marin was varying hour by hour. He recommended that people purchase the N95 mask rather than surgical masks, and said residents should remain indoors. 

“I’m pretty sure I don’t have a cold, but it feels like I have one,” John Plumeri, a Point Reyes Station resident, said of the smoke. “It’s not just a campfire; it’s everybody’s things. All of that real estate is in the air.”

Greenbridge Gas & Auto was out of gas between 9 a.m. and 9 p.m. on Monday, a sign on the station’s door reading: “Truck cannot make it because of fires.” The Palace Market opened early and an employee said people were buying up water and “comfort foods.” 

The Old Western Saloon opened three hours ahead of schedule to provide orange juice and a place to watch the news. Seated at the bar along with his two roommates, Malcolm Silva-Anderson said he decided to evacuate after noticing ash covering the ground outside his Santa Rosa apartment. 

“We just decided we have to head out to the coast,” he said. “It’s the safest, and we wanted to avoid Highway 101.”

Santa Rosa resident Alejandro Estrada huddled with three friends, all still in their pajamas, near Toby’s Playground. “My neighbors woke me up this morning telling me about the smoke,” he said. “We decided to flee just to be safe.”

Former Point Reyes Station resident Jane Gyorgy fled her home in Santa Rosa early on Monday morning to stay at a friend’s house. She said it took four hours to travel 44 miles—much of it a terrifying scene. 

“All of the hills on the north side of Highway 12 were completely engulfed in flames,” she said. “There was no ridgeline; it was all smoke. Columns of smoke, some light and some black. It was absolutely jaw dropping. And it just went on and on.”

On Monday morning, the Point Reyes Disaster Council contacted Bonnie Guttman, executive director at the Dance Palace, to ask if the community center could serve as a shelter. Within hours, the main hall had been filled with yellow gym mats lining the room’s edges. People rested on the mats or sat by their phones plugged into the outlets while children used their socks and pajama bottoms to skate across the wooden floor. 

West Marin Community Services brought over food from its pantry and clothing from its thrift store. The Point Reyes Library donated cases of books for reading. 

Over 200 people came through the Dance Palace on Monday and Tuesday, either for a meal or for a place to sleep. Half of those stayed overnight on Monday, while a handful slept in their cars nearby to be with their pets. Local restaurants and St. Columba’s Episcopal Church donated food. Ms. Guttman said over 100 volunteers arrived to drop off clothes and supplies, help prepare meals and donate money. A local 6-year-old stopped by to donate $17 after an evacuee tipped him $20 for helping with a dog (he had spent $3 on ice cream). 

Jesus Sanchez, a carpenter who lives in Santa Rosa, slept at the Dance Palace on Monday with his family. “I feel like I’m bothering people here,” he said. “Because I’ve never been here before.” 

Impromptu shelters opened elsewhere in West Marin, including at the Tomales Presbyterian Church, the San Geronimo Community Center and the Marconi Conference Center in Marshall. 

Amy Beilharz, the center’s executive director, said 60 people stayed over on Monday night and more than 90 on Tuesday, after the Dance Palace directed people there. Once they ran out of available hotel rooms, the center set up cots in its meeting rooms.

Vincent Pizzuto, the vicar at St. Columba’s, said the church was ready to accept evacuees but had to refrain. As a Red Cross-designated emergency center, it needed a green light from the organization. Mr. Pizzuto said that instead, the church invited evacuees to use its showers and members prepared food in the retreat house kitchen.

Tomales Bay Resort provided all of its 35 rooms to evacuees, asking guests with existing reservations to voluntarily give them up to evacuees. 

Many opened their own homes to evacuees, including a dairy ranch in Nicasio that took in Sonoma resident Juan Zaragoza and his family.

“The rancher said, ‘Today it’s you and tomorrow it could be me,’” Mr. Zaragoza said.

Laurie Monserrat invited four evacuees and their two cats into her yurt in Point Reyes Station. 

“When I went down [to the Dance Palace] yesterday morning, Bonnie said to me, ‘This isn’t the disaster center, but I opened the doors and I made soup,’” Ms. Monserrat said. “I thought that was awesome. We should all open our doors and make soup.”

Bob Raines, superintendent of Shoreline Unified School District, part of the county’s emergency operations system, said they were prepared to open up the West Marin School gym. “At the drop of the hat we’d say yes, but what I know about disasters is you have to be real clear about who is the decision-maker,” he said. 

The county opened the Terra Linda High School gym to receive overflow from the Marin County Civic Center Exhibition Hall, the county’s primary relief center. There were 50 people at the gym on Monday night, and five slept over on Tuesday.

Laine Hendricks, public information officer for the county, commended the generosity of West Marin groups that offered refuge, but recommended evacuees use shelters in San Rafael to better access resources and communicate with Sonoma County agencies.

The California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection said October historically sees the state’s largest and most damaging wildfires, with the five largest wildfires in the state since 1991 occurring in October. In West Marin, the 1995 Mount Vision Fire began on Oct. 3.

 

Marin County’s official shelter is located at the Civic Center Exhibition Hall, at 10 Avenue of the Flags, in San Rafael. The Center for Volunteer & Nonprofit Leadership is accepting volunteers and monetary donations.