Kincade Fire Evacuees Crowd Strip Malls, Fairgrounds, Campgrounds

Many of the more than 180,000 evacuees are staying with family and friends until they can safely return home. But many others have had to sleep in evacuation centers, their cars and RVs, county fairgrounds, and campgrounds.

by Thy Vo and Maggie Angst, The Mercury News / October 30, 2019
Kincade Fire evacuee Darrin Dailey cleans his recreational vehicle while camped in a Rohnert Park, Calif., parking lot on Tuesday, Oct. 29, 2019. Strong winds predicted to begin Tuesday afternoon threaten to spread the blaze that has already destroyed 124 structures and scorched more than 75,000 acres according to Cal Fire. AP/Noah Berger

(TNS) — Like nomads, thousands of people fleeing the ferocious 75,000-acre Kincade Fire have been migrating south — town to town — trying to stay a step ahead of the destructive blaze that has been steadily expanding since it broke out near Geyserville last Wednesday night.

Many of the more than 180,000 evacuees moved into the homes of family and friends to await news of when they can safely return, hopefully to homes that are still standing. But many others have had to sleep in evacuation centers, their cars and RVs, county fairgrounds and even campgrounds. Hotels across the region have been booked solid by fire refugees.

On Tuesday, the Petaluma KOA campground was teeming with evacuees allowed to take the camp sites of recreational visitors who were asked to leave last Saturday.

Among them was Becky Ferris and her husband, who set up a tent there with neighbors and friends after leaving their home in Santa Rosa, near Coffey Park. For them, the memory of the deadly Tubbs Fire just two years ago was still fresh — its flames stopping only 300 yards from her home, Ferris said.

“The winds that are supposed to come tonight are concerning, but we’re trying to take it minute by minute,” she said. Although she was hoping to return home the next day, she extended her reservation until Saturday in case the evacuation isn’t lifted.

Pauline Wood, who owns the 312-site campground, said people flocked there during the Tubbs Fire, so she anticipated it would desperately be needed again.

“Places that can handle a large amount of bodies need to understand they have a responsibility,” Wood said.

Other parts of Petaluma were full of evacuees, too, including evacuation centers, the Sonoma Marin Fairgrounds and strip mall parking lots.

Mark Allen, of Sebastopol, and his friend Lorraine Martinez, of Windsor, stayed in their RVs at a Target parking lot across from the Sonoma Marin Fairgrounds for two days before moving on to the Petaluma KOA campground. The store opened early to allow people sleeping in the parking lot to use the bathroom, Martinez said.

Sonoma County officials did not have figures for how many evacuees were staying at 21 evacuation centers across the region. But the American Red Cross said about 2,900 people stayed at its six shelters Monday night and more than 3,200 the night before.

A number of people also are sleeping in cars and RVs in shelter parking lots, said Cynthia Shore, a spokeswoman for the Red Cross in Northern California. They’re coming to the evacuation centers to take a shower, use the bathroom and access other services.

“They don’t have to stay inside our building to access our services, and they’re welcome to come in for meals, health care services and mental health workers,” Shore said.

Many of the Red Cross volunteers working at evacuation centers have been evacuated themselves, she added.

“They decided it’s important for them to volunteer and help their community,” she said.

With overnight temperatures expected to dip into the 30s Tuesday, authorities are urging people staying in their cars and RVs to take extra precautions.

Michael, a 52-year-old Sebastopol resident who declined to give his last name, initially biked to the Sonoma County Fairgrounds in Santa Rosa to volunteer, but when his neighborhood was evacuated the next day, he found himself a victim, too.

Now that a mandatory evacuation order for Sebastopol has been lifted, he was mulling whether to take the bus home to check on his cats but isn’t eager to return to a frigid house. Much of Sebastopol is still out of power because of PG&E’s planned blackout.

“This (fire) is worse because everybody’s been evacuated, and there’s no power,” Michael said, sitting outside the evacuation center, wrapped in a Red Cross blanket.

After spending the past nine years living on and off in their car, Michelle Jacinto, 60, and her husband, Carlos, finally secured an apartment last month off State Route 116 in Forestville. They were just starting to settle in and finished unloading boxes when they were told Friday that they should evacuate.

“It felt like we were blessed and cursed all in the same breath,” Michelle said, sitting in her 1985 Toyota Corolla outside the emergency evacuation center at the Sonoma County Fairgrounds on Tuesday morning.

Before leaving their new apartment, the couple packed the backseat of their car with everything they could manage — from their two Chihuahuas to essentials like clothes and food to family photos and mementos from their grandchildren.

“It makes you nervous to live here. It takes a lot out of you,” Michelle said.

Although the location of their apartment was downgraded to an evacuation advisory area late Monday, the uncertainty that the PG&E power shutdown and anticipated winds could bring weighed heavily.

“There’s still no power up there,” Michelle said. “And with these winds, we figure it would be a waste of time because we could end up being evacuated again like last time.”

Wood, the KOA campground owner, said the advance notice from authorities — and lessons learned from the last major wildfire — meant people were more prepared and nerves less frayed.

During the Tubbs Fire, Wood and her husband went to evacuate 28 horses from Coffey Park and when they returned found people waiting in the driveway of the campground partially clothed.

“In 2017, people ran for their lives without everything, and that really took an emotional toll,” Wood said. “This time, people could go and get their RVs — they were more prepared.”

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