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Petaluman’s party bus offers fire evacuees fun escape


When Barbara Flournoy boarded a blue bus outside the Petaluma Veterans Memorial hall under smoky skies Tuesday evening, she was in for a vastly different ride than the harrowing one she’d taken early the previous morning.

Around 4 a.m. Monday, a friend at her Fountaingrove retirement community alerted her to the firestorm outside their homes. When she called 9-1-1, the dispatcher told her “all of Santa Rosa is on fire,” and urged her to evacuate, she said.

“I grabbed my pets and my purse and ran to the car … the smoke was so thick I couldn’t even see my hand in front of my face,” she said. “There were flames and embers … I made my way out and I couldn’t see — I drove across Mendocino Avenue and I couldn’t even tell it was an intersection.”

She made it to Cotati, where she and a friend waited in a lengthy line for gas before bouncing around to several Petaluma evacuation centers, finally landing at the Veterans Memorial hall. An island surrounded by 100,000 acres of devastating fires, Petaluma has become a refuge for nearly 2,000 people fleeing one of the worst wildfires in California history.

Rocked by the ruination around the county, Petaluma resident Donnie Penales and his daughter Bryna sought to infuse some light into an otherwise dreary situation. After dropping off food from a local eatery to be distributed to those in need, Penales offered his school-bus-turned-party-rig to shuttle evacuees to the Mystic Theatre, which was offering free food, entertainment and supplies to those displaced by fires.

“I just love the fact that I can give back to the community in the best way I can — to be able to lift people’s spirits and give them a spirit of adventure,” he said.

Penales and his daughter converted the inside of a teal school bus, dubbed Betsy Bleu, into a lounge space complete with a bed, couch, table and enough seating for about 16 people. In the few short months he’s owned the bus, he’s taken it to an eclipse party in Oregon and on camping trips in Mendocino and Santa Cruz, but it’s the first time it’s been used to transport refugees from a disaster. It won’t be the last either as Penales said he plans to continue to offer his services to those in need.

For Maria Flores, who also fled from the fire in Santa Rosa, riding on the whimsical bus was a chance to see her three young children laugh. Seated on the large bed in the back of the bus, they giggled loudly as they bounced on the short drive to downtown Petaluma.

“They needed something different,” said Flores, who said her home survived the fire, but her family is staying at the veterans center until they are cleared to return home.

Penales smiled as he watched his passengers exit the bus for a hot meal inside the historic theater.

“It’s all for the community,” he said.

The Mystic Theater, McNear’s Saloon & Dining House and Sauced restaurant offered free food to those in need, a decision that co-owner and longtime Petaluma resident Ken O’Donnell said just made sense.

“This is the first time it’s this close to home,” he said.

Jennifer Sawhnui, the assistant to the general manager of the Mystic Theatre, said the venue plans to keep its doors open until Thursday night at 8 p.m., playing movies on a big screen, serving food and attempting to offer a slice of normalcy for those whose lives have been turned upside down.

“We want to open this up for the community — our community needs it,” she said. “More than anything, the outpouring of support is incredible.”

Volunteers were on hand to serve meals while donations of food and supplies poured in throughout the day.

Inside the cavernous concert hall, Flournoy enjoyed a hearty meal of vegetables, salad, barbecued pork, strew and cake before getting back on the bus. She laughed as she called it a flashback to the 1960s, grinning as she looked out the window and spoke about her gratitude for the support of the community.

“It’s like the magical mystery tour … they should make all buses like that,” she said.

(Contact Hannah Beausang at hannah.beausang@arguscourier.com.)