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Petaluma helps with long fire recovery


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In favorable weather conditions this week, firefighters worked to contain monstrous wildfires that scorched more than 100,000 acres in Sonoma County, permanently altering the landscape and the lives of many in the community. While Petaluma escaped damage from the historic firestorm and the city continued to serve as a safe haven for evacuees, it became clear that the recovery effort would take months or longer and volunteers dug in for the long haul.

As flames subsided and evacuation orders were lifted, allowing residents of the hardest hit areas of Santa Rosa and Sonoma Valley to return home, several temporary shelters in Petaluma closed and evacuees consolidated at the Lucchesi Park Community Center and Veteran’s Building. A shelter at the Sonoma-Marin Fairgrounds was closing on Wednesday. Those who remained in evacuation centers had lost homes in the fires.

After evacuating Agua Caliente, Judy Guttridge and her husband Roger ended up at the Sonoma-Marin Fairgrounds. She was elated on Monday as she planned her return to the home that the couple has owned for 27 years, which was reportedly untouched by the fires.

“I’m feeling great – my kids, grandkids and great grandkids all live within a mile (of our house) and they’re all OK,” she said.

Schools reopen

Signs of normalcy returned to Petaluma as schools, which were shuttered all last week, resumed classes. Petaluma City Schools District Superintendent Gary Callahan said schools were absorbing an influx of students whose schools in other cities remained closed, or who were displaced and sheltering in Petaluma.

By Tuesday, all schools were in session and officials were monitoring air quality and limiting outdoor activities including sports practices, Callahan said. He said at least five district personnel had lost homes in the fire. The school days that were missed would not be made up, he said.

For the displaced students, Callahan said the Petaluma district was there to help.

“They can stay as long as they want,” he said. “Right now we just need to get them into school and get them back to normal. We’re reaching out to other districts to say we’re available for anything they need.”

Firefight continues

As containment of the Tubbs, Nuns and Atlas fires in Sonoma and Napa counties climbed this week, weary local firefighters continued to assist in that effort, working alongside some 5,000 fire personnel brought in from across the country. As of Wednesday, the 36,400-acre Tubbs fire from northern Santa Rosa to Calistoga was 91 percent contained, the 51,000-acre Atlas fire in Napa County was 83 percent contained, and the 54,000-acre Nuns fire in the Sonoma Valley was 80 percent contained. At least 42 people have died in the North Bay fires.

The Rancho Adobe Fire Protection District this week had five engines working across Sonoma County with three others in the Penngrove-area district, according to Battalion Chief Mike Weihman.

“People are pretty exhausted,” he said. “What we’re doing is not sustainable. It’s increasingly difficult to staff our stations. We need to make our way back to normal.”

Petaluma Fire Chief Leonard Thompson said the department has had 30 personnel assigned to area fires since Oct. 9, but they started coming back this week as fire containment increased.

“I am really proud of our fire department,” he said. “Our guys went out and performed extremely well this week. They did extraordinary work. We used every piece of equipment this week.”

Petaluma Municipal Airport closed on Friday for about 10 days to be used as a base for helicopters involved in firefighting efforts.

Airport Manager Bob Patterson said he received a call from CalFire on Thursday alerting him that the east side airport would be transformed into a helicopter attack base. Between 12 to 20 helicopters from various agencies were expected to use the facility, he said.

“Our airport was the closest,” he said of its proximity to nearby fires.

City impacts

At its Monday meeting, the Petaluma City Council took a brief moment to reflect on the devastation surrounding the city, while also recognizing efforts from city personnel who mobilized to create various safe havens throughout the city for displaced people.

“I would like to take a moment to recognize the victims of the firestorm in Sonoma County and surrounding countries and to thank our staff for their ongoing and tireless work that helped Petaluma become the shelter in the firestorm,” Councilwoman Teresa Barrett said.

The council also voted to extend an emergency declaration, making emergency response liability protection available to the city, and helping to recover costs associated with the disaster response.

At least two city staff lost homes in the fire, according to City Clerk Claire Cooper. The complete toll on city employees had yet to be tallied, though, and there was no available estimate for costs the city incurred from operating evacuation centers and other related emergency response efforts.

Red Cross takes over shelters

At Petaluma shelters, volunteers and Red Cross staff continued to provide a port in the storm, while National Guard troops patrolled outside. The 64-acre fairgrounds off East Washington Street was bustling with activity Monday, as volunteers including Petaluma resident Martha Flores organized mountains of donations from the community. The minister at St. Vincent de Paul church in Petaluma has spent four days helping out.

“I am here for my people, the Spanish people, and for everyone,” she said through a translator. “The people are good, but sad because some have lost their houses. Most can’t even go back.”

Red Cross workers, including acting shelter manager Kyle Parkinson, were overseeing operations Monday. Parkinson, who lives in Minnesota, had just returned home from relief efforts at hurricanes Nate, Irma and Harvey when she received a call to fly to Sonoma County. She waited for her clothes to dry before flying out once again.

Parkinson and Lee Minish, a Red Cross worker from South San Jose, praised Petaluma’s unity in the face of adversity.

“(The community) has been exceptional as far as donations and efforts,” said Minish, who has been a disaster worker for four years. “They really put together a good response.”

Medical issues

Inside the Beverly C. Wilson Hall at the fairgrounds, volunteer medical professionals staffed a clinic, a grassroots effort spearheaded by Petaluma resident Michelle Patino.

The registered nurse at Kaiser Santa Rosa had gone to the fairgrounds to drop off blankets and pillows, and found a medical area equipped only with a broken glucometer, a Pampers box and a half empty bottle of Pepto-Bismol.

Monday marked her sixth day and her 96th hour of manning the makeshift clinic filled with a plethora of donated supplies and handmade thank you notes, including a colorful sign with marker drawings of band aids and stars that read “Thank you doctors” taped on a pillar near the treatment area.

“I was in the right place at the right time … we made it happen,” she said, exhaustion visible on her face.

The majority of the estimated 300 patients received treatment for respiratory-related issues from the smoke and ash that brought with it the dirtiest air ever recorded in Sonoma County.

Meanwhile, the Petaluma Health Care District worked closely with the Petaluma Valley Hospital Command Center, providing support to meet the needs of the physicians, staff and patients, according to Melinda Hepp, a district spokeswoman. Petaluma saw an influx of patients as medical centers in Santa Rosa were forced to close due to the fires.

Long-term relief

As workers consolidated shelters this week, 36 refugees remained in Petaluma evacuation centers, according to Lori Wilson, a Red Cross worker from Alaska who was handling public affairs. It was unclear how long shelters would remain open, and Red Cross is working with state and local agencies to map out long-term plans to help evacuees into housing, she said.

“There are volunteers here who have lost everything – people who are living in the shelter have stepped up and they’re helping at the shelter,” she said. “People who have lost everything have asked ‘how can I help?’ It’s an amazing thing to see how people come together in the face of their own tragedy and disaster.”