Fire crews in Northern California are working to smother wildfires using aircraft to drop water and fire retardant before windstorms return to the area. About 156,000 people were under mandatory evacuation orders. (Oct. 29) AP, AP
SANTA ROSA, Calif. — Built in 1950, this Sonoma County town’s squat blue-gray Veterans Memorial Auditorium has hosted everything from rock concerts to flea markets.
But lately it has reprised its role as a gathering place for fire evacuees. Nearly 3,000 people now call this cavernous 45,000-square-foot building home, escapees from the nearby Kincade Fire that has burned 76,000 acres, destroyed 189 buildings and forced 200,000 to leave their homes.
Most of these fire refugees arrive with little more than nothing, but they pack the same emotional baggage.
Fear. Frustration. Anger. But also gratitude, compassion and even humor.
“It’s very hard psychologically,” says Daisy Carreno, taking a break from handing out donated coffee to fire victims. “In the meantime, it makes me feel good to help people. Because I know what they’re going through.”
Carreno’s story is achingly familiar to many residents. In 2017, the Tubbs Fire tore through this town, killing 22 and wiping out entire neighborhoods like Coffey Park, where Carreno lived with her husband and kids.
While she and her family made due in a FEMA trailer for more than a year, the 2018 Camp Fire destroyed Paradise, killing 85 people and decimating 13,000 buildings. Her daughter, who lived near Paradise in Chico, evacuated but was safe.
“And now, we have this,” Carreno says with a shrug. In April, Carreno finally moved out of the FEMA trailer and into a home in Windsor, near Santa Rosa. On Saturday, she and her family were told to leave by officials.
“We are living at a friend’s house, about 20 of us in all,” she says, laughing. “It’s crazy, we joke that it could be a reality show. But we do what we can. Where can you go? It seems every place has something. Earthquakes, hurricanes, floods. So we stay, hope for the best, and try to help.”
Red Cross will be in California fire country for ‘as long as we need to be’
The Veterans Memorial Auditorium shelter, administered by the Red Cross, feels like a cross between a first aid center and a camp out.
Signs in English and in Spanish direct evacuees to showers, medical assistance and meals. In one corner of the lobby, NBC’s “Hoda & Jenna” plays on the TV for a few guests. In another, a group of women play cards. A shelter worker passes through with a man in a wheelchair, while other volunteers sign in newcomers.
“We had 600 people on Sunday, but around 2,800 now,” says Red Cross shelter manager Victoria Escalante-Tambert, adding that there are 16 shelters in operation through the region staffed by nearly 200 volunteers. “We’ll be here as long as we need to be.”
One of those Red Cross volunteers is also an evacuee.
Beth Fulton lives in Sebastopol, which is on the west side of the 101 Freeway. Although firefighters are determined to make sure the Kincade Fire doesn’t jump the highway — a catastrophe that could find towns burned all the way to the Pacific Ocean — her town was evacuated as a precaution.
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Fulton is a social worker specializing in emotional trauma and felt her skills could be put to good use here.
“People are naturally resilient, but to deal with this year after year can be traumatizing,” says Fulton, who knows two couples who lost their homes to fire in 2017 and one moved to Santa Fe, New Mexico, and the other to Portland, Oregon. “This seems like it’ll be a yearly thing, and some people say, ‘I’ve had enough.’”
Fulton says that for many evacuees who have been through this experience before, even the smell of smoke — whose acrid, eye-stinging essence now pervades all of Santa Rosa — can trigger depression. Her advice: “Practice good self-care, sleep, eat, walk and connect with friends.”
‘The hardest part … is just not knowing what’s going on back at your house’
That’s a prescription taken to heart by Priti Kurtz and her teenage daughter Keira.
Their Santa Rosa home has no power, echoing the state of millions of Californians as Pacific Gas & Electric shut down service across dozens of countries due to hot weather and dry winds. But so far, they haven’t been evacuated. Instead, they grabbed three Pit Bull-mix puppies they are fostering and came to the shelter.
“When I smelled that smoke, it was PTSD, here we go again,” says Priti Kurtz, who in 2017 had firefighters banging on her door at 2 a.m. urging her to leave her home. “I am so glad for these puppies, because we’re focused on them and not constantly reading the news.”
Keira Kurtz heads off to talk to Red Cross officials about sharing the dogs with evacuees. Her mother sighs. “At first, to be honest, I was so upset, because I’m so tired of this,” she says. “But now I’ve regained my composure. This is home. It’s where friends and family are. So while it’s all exhausting, we’ll learn to deal with it.”
Is this the ‘new normal’? With raging fires, high winds and blackouts, California is living a disaster movie.
Nearby, just outside the entrance to the Veterans Memorial Building, a family of three finishes eating a makeshift breakfast sitting cross-legged on the grass with their dog resting close by.
The family — Allison Baker, her husband Gail, their teen daughter who asked not to be named and a mutt named Muffin — has been out of their Windsor home since Saturday afternoon. So far, they believe it still stands.
“The hardest part often is just not knowing what’s going on back at your house,” says Allison Baker. “The last few years here have been tough, no question. But people are getting better at disasters. We’re not looking at other places to live.”
Asked if she, like many Californians from Gov. Gavin Newsom on down, believe PG&E should be held responsible for the fires and their aftermath, Baker shakes her head.
“I think these power shutoffs are necessary, to be safe,” she says.
‘PG&E should be turned over to … someone who can fix it’
That’s not the view of Cindy Baldwin, who is busy feeding her dogs Max and Lucy near her Nissan pick-up truck in the parking lot.
“I think PG&E should be turned over to the fire department, or the government, or someone who can fix it,” says Baldwin, who has come to the shelter for a meal but prefers to sleep in the bed of her truck since being evacuated from Forestville, another Sonoma County town that lies west of Highway 101.
“The utility needs to go back to the people, or at least people who care,” says Baldwin, who adds that PG&E crews have been in her neighborhood trimming trees as part of the bankrupt company’s plan to mitigate against fires, “but they never clean up what they cut, so it’s just sitting there, waiting to burn.”
Baldwin says she’s also angry because the power shutoffs have put a hold on everyone’s lives, which means her job as a health care provider has been paused. Her other income comes from selling pieces of crystal in shopping mall parking lots, but most are closed.
“Look at this beauty,” Baldwin says, lifting up a blanket in her truck’s bed to reveal a two-foot long rock glinting in the sun. “I sleep in my truck because I need to make sure nothing happens to it.”
For Baldwin, this latest fiery outrage that drove her to the Veterans Memorial Building parking lot may well be the last straw. Although she loves a lot about her forested California life, fear and uncertainty are powerful smelling salts.
“I’m thinking of moving to Reno,” she says. “No floods. No fires. Just a bunch of sand.”
Follow USA TODAY national correspondent Marco della Cava: @marcodellacava
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