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In Petaluma, a shelter amid firestorm


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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.

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 were on hand to accept donations and evacuees.

“We have games and toys and play areas and we have entertainment to keep kids calm,” she said.

All school districts in the Petaluma area canceled for the week.

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.

“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.”

Inside the evacuation 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. At the fairgrounds, Sonoma Preferred Caterers handed out meals and Three Twins passed out Ice Cream.

Other local businesses also pitched in. Lace House Linen employees came by the Veteran’s Building to take donated clothing and bedding to be washed and returned them all cleaned and folded, according to John Walsh. Glenn Ross, VFW Commander, coordinated donations and distribution of food, including milk and ice cream from Clover Sonoma. McNears, Cucina Paradiso and Sauced restaurants provided free meals to fire victims, and Napolito gave away free burritos. Larry Peter, owner of Petaluma Creamery, donated 100 pounds of cheese. Synergy Health Club opened their doors for free showers.

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.

Sonoma County Human Services south county center, at 5350 Old Redwood Hwy. in Petaluma (565-5511) was open and serving residents who could not get services at the closed Santa Rosa office.

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.”

The Petaluma Senior Center also opened its doors to evacuees, Petaluma People Services Center Executive Director Elece Hempel said. On Monday, 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, Hempel 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.”

Petaluma City Councilman Gabe Kearney, who volunteered at the community center, asked residents to help in whatever capacity possible.

“There’s a big need in the community,” Kearney said. “It will take a long time to heal.”