In Petaluma, a shelter amid firestorm
As fires this week raged to the north, east and south of Petaluma, the city, spared from the devastation inflicted upon neighboring Sonoma County communities, became a refuge for those fleeing the deadly blazes.
Beginning Sunday night, Petaluma residents nervously watched as strong winds fanned flames in the hills of eastern Santa Rosa, the Sonoma Valley and along Highway 37.
An island sanctuary surrounded by fire, Petalumans opened their arms, sheltering, feeding and clothing thousands of people forced to evacuate neighboring cities. The refugees arrived in cars and buses at shelters around Petaluma, many having lost everything in fires that totaled at least 100,000 acres in Sonoma County alone. At least 21 people died in Sonoma County and other fires in Napa and Mendocino counties.
Jeunee Craw-Molinaro spent Monday at the Lucchesi Park Community Center, one of 10 shelters throughout Petaluma. The Santa Rosa resident and Petaluma preschool teacher was one of many from the Coffey Park neighborhood who faced an apocalyptic scene left in the wake of a deadly fire that leveled the entire district.
When she returned to where her home had once stood, all that greeted her was ash and the charred remains of the stone steps that had led to her front door.
“The whole neighborhood is just gone – it looks like a ghost of what it used to be,” Craw-Molinaro said Tuesday. “Our house was still burning when we were there yesterday, we only stopped for a minute … it was just ashes and it was devastating to see.”
After a brief stint at the evacuation shelter, her family was housed by friends. Many in Petaluma opened their homes to friends, family and even strangers displaced from the fires.
Craw-Molinaro plans to take the rest of the week off from her post at Tiny Tots preschool to help her three young children process what she described as a surreal loss.
“Our daughter was hit the hardest by it,” she said. “She keeps telling me she wants to go home, but not our home the way it was yesterday.”
Nearly 2,000 others took refuge from the blazes at the Petaluma community center, Casa Grande High School, the Petaluma Veteran’s Building, Cavanagh Recreation Center and several Petaluma churches. The Sonoma-Marin Fairgrounds housed people as well as livestock. Petaluma shelters were brimming with donations and many were turning away volunteers as so many people showed up to help the relief effort.
Gov. Jerry Brown declared a state of emergency, and President Donald Trump signed a federal disaster declaration for the California wildfires. Every Petaluma-area fire department sent personnel and equipment to fires around the county. While Santa Rosa and the Sonoma Valley were hardest hit, flames never reached Petaluma.
The Nunn Fire, which started near Glen Ellen, crept over Sonoma Mountain and was contained north of Penngrove. The Thirty Seven fire scorched 2,000 acres around Sears Point and was contained about 10 miles south of Petaluma. Petaluma Valley Hospital cared for 35 patients with injuries related to fires.
Petaluma Mayor David Glass spent Monday visiting local shelters.
“People are stepping up, and there’s going to be a whole lot of stepping up that needs to be done,” he said.
The Lucchesi Center was soon at capacity with at least 600 evacuees shortly after the fires began. Petaluma recreation supervisors Drew Halter and Ali Cresci coordinated operations there as Army National Guard members assisted.
“Petaluma has a place to care for you,” Halter said.
At Casa Grande High School, about 140 evacuees took refuge in seven buildings, according to Assistant Principal Dan Ostermann, and about 200 students turned out to lend a hand.
“I am completely inspired by the by the generosity of our community,” Ostermann said.
Tuesday morning, the multiuse room on the campus was filled with beds and supplies for about two dozen residents from Spring Lake Village, a Santa Rosa retirement community. Elderly residents watched “White Christmas” on a makeshift theater set up on the stage.
“I have been overly impressed with the ambiance and the caring people of Petaluma,” said Spring Lake Village resident Charmaine Martini.
Nearly 20 players on Casa Grande’s Gaucho football team also mobilized overnight Monday, setting up cots, distributing food and helping the elderly residents to the bathroom, according to coach Denis Brunk. As practice was canceled Tuesday, the team gathered in a classroom to talk about the fire and lessons learned, Brunk said.
“I love the concept of the way they rallied to help the community … they realized this was much bigger than them,” he said.