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Spared fire damage, Petaluma becomes a refuge


Petaluma was spared from the devastation that a 50,000-acre wildfire inflicted upon most of Sonoma County Monday. Residents nervously watched as strong winds fanned flames in the hills of eastern Santa Rosa, the Sonoma Valley and along Highway 37 at Lakeville Highway.

An island refuge surrounded by blazes, Petaluma opened several shelters to residents of neighboring cities fleeing the destructive fire, taking in about 1,275 evacuees by mid-afternoon.

As a heavy blanket of smoke obscured the sun Monday morning, 8-year-old Trinity Molinaro sat at an easel in a preschool classroom at Petaluma’s Luchessi Park Community Center, using chalk to draw a photo of her family’s home in Santa Rosa in the red-tinged light.

Her mother, Jeunee Craw-Molinaro, was filled with uncertainty as she paced around the room in the makeshift evacuation center, distressed about the fate of her family’s house near the site of a devastating fire that leveled nearby residences and prompted thousands of evacuations. Around 1:30 a.m., her husband woke up to the sounds of howling winds and looked out the window of their home near Coffey Park, where they’ve lived for three years. He saw a dark wall of smoke and a line of cars leaving the area.

After packing a bag with clothes and valuables, the couple loaded up their three children, two dogs and the family turtle and left their home behind.

“I just want to know if our house is OK,” said Craw-Molinaro, a teacher at the Tiny Tots preschool at the community center. “Houses that we walked past with the dogs on the way to the park are all gone, down to the chimney … I want to see it with my own eyes for it to be real. Until then, it feels like a bad dream.”

Craw-Molinaro was one of as many as 600 people from around Sonoma County who took refuge from the blazes at the community center, sleeping in the halls and aching to hear updates about their homes and livelihoods.

Gov. Jerry Brown declared a state of emergency for Sonoma, Napa and Yuba counties. About 15 Petaluma firefighters were at blazes in Santa Rosa and the Adobe Canyon area Monday afternoon, Capt. Kevin Weaver said. He said the winds had died down momentarily, hopefully bringing a respite for those on the front lines.

Around 2:45 p.m., Rancho Adobe Fire Protection District had two fully-staffed engines responding to fires, with another on standby, according to board president Greg Karraker. Crews were battling a blaze that seemed to be held at bay at Crane Creek Park, and there were no mandatory evacuations in Penngrove Monday afternoon, he said.

There were seven confirmed fatalities as of Monday afternoon, according to the Sonoma County Sheriff’s office.

State officials said the extent of injuries and scope of the damage were still under investigation more than 12 hours into the life of several destructive wildfires, but preliminary estimates suggested at least 1,500 structures had been destroyed, including homes and businesses, with many more threatened, according to Cal Fire director Ken Pimlott.

Along with the community center, nine shelters were open across the city, according to a news release from city officials.

Around 3:20 p.m., city shelters had the capacity for about 2,000 more people. The Petaluma Veterans Building, at 1049 Petaluma Blvd. South; the Cavanagh Center, at 426 8th Street and the Petaluma Fairgrounds, at 175 Fairgrounds Drive, were still accepting evacuees Monday afternoon, according to the press release.

Around 1:30 p.m., Mayor David Glass said he’d been busy visiting local shelters. As the community center and the fairgrounds were reaching capacity, he encouraged evacuees to go to the Veteran’s Center, which has the capacity for about 640 people, or other shelters.

Deborah Dalton, executive director of Mentor Me, the nonprofit that’s housed in the Cavanagh Recreation Center, said her entire staff and about 30 volunteers are on hand to accept donations and evacuees.

“It would be really nice for families to come here,” she said. “We have games and toys and play areas and we have entertainment to keep kids calm.”

All school districts in the Petaluma area canceled classes on Monday. SMART canceled commuter rail service and Golden Gate Transit canceled bus routes along the Highway 101 corridor. Traffic was heavy along Highway 101 through Petaluma all morning as road closures and additional cars from fleeing residents caused traffic jams.

Outside the community center, Linda LaFranchi held back tears as she huddled over a small pile of her possessions, including a carrier with her cars Moon and Dakota, a vessel containing her husband’s ashes and a box of bills. She’s lived in her home near Coddingtown Mall for 17 years, but was unsure of its fate early Monday.

“I was sound asleep and my upstairs neighbor came down and pounded on my door until I woke up and they said ‘there’s a huge fire and we have to get out.’ Then my phone rang and it was the emergency call to ‘get, out, get out, get out,’ she said. “I don’t have a car – it’s just me and the cats and I have my husband’s ashes with me. I lost him at the beginning of the year and I’m really hoping I haven’t lost my home, too.”

Nearby, Tom Stanley held his daughter’s Pomeranian Ubunto close to his chest as he surveyed the hazy skies. In January, he moved from Ventura into The Orchard, a 55 and over community in Santa Rosa, to enjoy a peaceful retirement. Around 2:30 a.m. Monday, he woke up to find a nearby trailer in flames. He immediately evacuated, before he even had time to grab a jacket.

“It just kind of serves to show that we certainly weren’t prepared … we need to change that,” he said.

Inside the center, city employees, volunteers, Coast Guard personnel and health care providers convened to set up a triage of services, including child care, counseling and a treatment center for minor injuries. Drew Halter, the city’s recreation supervisor, said as many as 17 city staff were at the center to help out, and more were expected to arrive later.

As of Monday morning, it was unclear how long the shelter would be open, but Halter said workers were seeking cots and mobile showers. It was also unclear when aid from Red Cross would arrive.

“Petaluma has a place to care for you, especially today,” he said.

Jennifer Mattox, a Kaiser nurse and a volunteer with the Sonoma County Medical Reserve Corp was on hand to help with donations and to organize relief efforts, as she did with the Valley Fire in Lake County.

“What’s amazing … is the amount of kids and dogs and pets,” she said. “There’s a 2-month-old baby … and this lady over here by herself is 99. To have such a wide range of people – I’ve never seen this before.”

Ani Larson, a Petaluma resident and a teacher at Corona Creek Elementary School, grabbed as many supplies as she could before driving to the community center to help in the bustling kitchen.

“It’s just something you do,” she said. “Petaluma is a great community and we consider Santa Rosa and those other communities our friends … I just had to do something other than sit around.”

Ron Christensen, a chaplain with the Petaluma Police Department received an early morning phone call asking for his services at the community center, where he’s spent hours hearing stories of devastation and uncertainty.

“I listen to them,” he said. “I can’t really tell them anything. What kind of wisdom do you need when your house is burning down? I just let them talk.”

The Petaluma Senior Center also opened its doors to evacuees at 6 a.m. Monday morning, Petaluma People Services Center Executive Director Elece Hempel said. By 1 p.m., about 45 seniors were at the temporary shelter that was manned by seven volunteers.

Many of Sonoma County’s elderly population didn’t have access to online updates about the fire, she said.

“The seniors are happy to see each other,” said Hempel, who lost a home in a massive Lake County fire. “When we get older, we look for things that we need to be thankful and places like this make people thankful.”

As the picture of the widespread destruction becomes clearer, Hempel said her organization plans to help with relief efforts. Staff members who facilitate a senior home share program are expediting efforts to ensure elderly residents have shelter, though some it’s not clear if housing properties the organization was working with in Santa Rosa are still standing.

The nonprofit Petaluma Animal Services mobilized about 30 volunteers to assist with temporarily sheltering displaced pets. When Red Cross arrives, those with animals are asked to leave the shelter, promoting concern among already traumatized residents who don’t want to separate from their pets.

“We take care of folk’s animals when they’re here so they can take advantage of the resources — get a bite to eat, something to drink, a cup of coffee and those kind of things and know their animals are safe,” the nonprofit’s Executive Director Jeff Charter said. “We’re here to be the safety net for the animals because in a disaster, they tend to get lost in the shuffle sometimes, but those of us who are animals lovers know they’re not going get lost in our shuffle.”

At a ranch on Skillman Lane, Susan Peterson and her husband, Rob Blouin, sheltered much of the livestock of Sonoma Mountain residents who were ordered to evacuate as the fire spread over the mountain from Sonoma. Peterson said they had taken in 50 horses, dozens of sheep and a baby zebra.

“We’re just taking in the animals of people who don’t know where to put them,” she said. “People don’t want to leave their animals behind.”

Petaluma City Councilman Gabe Kearney spent the morning working with his family to gauge needs and bring supplies to evacuation centers in the city. He asked residents to help in whatever capacity possible and to stay off the roads.

The community center is accepting donations of supplies, including food and water, Halter said. Police personnel were on hand to help distribute those to other centers, Petaluma Vehicle Abatement Officer Tim Harmon said.

The Committee on the Shelterless’s Mary Isaak Center was serving meals to anyone needing emergency food. The organization said its most urgent needs were for blankets and sleeping bags.

“There’s a big need in the community,” Kearney said. “Some folks are losing their homes and having the worst day of their lives. It will take a long time to heal.”

Glass praised the community’s quick response. “People are stepping up, and there’s going to be a whole lot of stepping up that needs to be done,” he said.