Fleeing Santa Rosa fires early Monday morning, James MacMillan and his wife loaded their two daughters, two dogs, a cat and “as much as we could” into their car and headed for Doran Regional Park where MacMillan is the supervising park ranger for the coastal division of Sonoma County Regional Parks.
When they arrived at 5 a.m., the Bodega Bay area already was packed with refugees from the fires and “extremely chaotic,” MacMillan said.
Since then MacMillan has been doing triage, trying to help people while steering them to more suitable long-term shelters and out of Doran, where sharp, cold winds swept across the dunes Wednesday evening.
“People have been trying to seek refuge here, and we want to care for them until they can find shelter elsewhere,” said MacMillan, whose own family has returned home safely. “But this is not a long-term place for people to be. People need to be in a better shelter that can provide better services for them.”
The flight of refugees to the coast came as a shock to Patty Ginochio, a longtime community volunteer. Awakened by predawn, fire-related public safety announcements, she observed “solid headlights coming up to the beaches” by 2 and 3 a.m. Monday.
Streams of vehicles filled with people were parking in turnouts by Portuguese and Schoolhouse beaches, some people sleeping right on the asphalt despite extremely cold temperatures. By sun-up, it was clear something needed to be done to help these people, who needed food and shelter. Many had little more than their pajamas.
“These people were freezing out there,” she said. “The emotion is beyond words.”
But there are no evacuation shelters on the coast, nor social service agencies to help, so community volunteers pitched in instead. Ginochio, whose family restaurant employs mostly inland residents, wasn’t able to open Monday anyway because most of the staff was missing. So she opened her doors to the cold and hungry.
Soon local citizens had improvised shelters at the Bodega Bay Grange, where 66 people slept Wednesday night, and at Bodega Bay Church, which had about 40, in addition to those staying at Doran Beach.
Ginochio, part of the local Community Emergency Response Team, used the 50 cots from a Red Cross trailer the team purchased with donated funds three years ago. Eighty more were purchased to meet some of the need.
“We had 500 people come into the shelter on Monday alone,” Ginochio said.
The nonprofit Ceres Project in Sebastopol and Bluewater Bistro at Bodega Harbour have provided hundreds of meals each day. Truckloads of donations — food, clothing, diapers, blankets, firewood — have been delivered from as far away as Sacramento.
Local doctors also have come in to examine people with medical needs and help acquire necessary medications, she said.
“Everything I see is human kindness at its best,” said Amber Stark, one of the recipients, mentioning “grandmas’ recipes and sweet comfort things.” Stark fled Napa with her three children who have asthma and has been joined by her husband and brother.
Many of the people who fled to Doran chose the coast to get away from the smoke. That’s why Mirian Martinez and her family ended at Doran after a two-day flight from their Larkfield apartments. Her husband has asthma, as well.
But the jury-rigged system lacks the professional expertise and organizational resources that can help link evacuees with the array of help they need. The current model, with a volunteers scrambling amid chaos, is just not sustainable either, despite widespread community support, Ginochio said.