Petaluma was spared from the devastation that a 50,000-acre wildfire inflicted upon most of Sonoma County Monday. Residents nervously watched as strong winds fanned flames in the hills of eastern Santa Rosa, the Sonoma Valley and along Highway 37 at Lakeville Highway.
An island refuge surrounded by blazes, Petaluma opened several shelters to residents of neighboring cities fleeing the destructive fire, taking in about 1,275 evacuees by mid-afternoon.
As a heavy blanket of smoke obscured the sun Monday morning, 8-year-old Trinity Molinaro sat at an easel in a preschool classroom at Petaluma’s Luchessi Park Community Center, using chalk to draw a photo of her family’s home in Santa Rosa in the red-tinged light.
Her mother, Jeunee Craw-Molinaro, was filled with uncertainty as she paced around the room in the makeshift evacuation center, distressed about the fate of her family’s house near the site of a devastating fire that leveled nearby residences and prompted thousands of evacuations. Around 1:30 a.m., her husband woke up to the sounds of howling winds and looked out the window of their home near Coffey Park, where they’ve lived for three years. He saw a dark wall of smoke and a line of cars leaving the area.
After packing a bag with clothes and valuables, the couple loaded up their three children, two dogs and the family turtle and left their home behind.
“I just want to know if our house is OK,” said Craw-Molinaro, a teacher at the Tiny Tots preschool at the community center. “Houses that we walked past with the dogs on the way to the park are all gone, down to the chimney … I want to see it with my own eyes for it to be real. Until then, it feels like a bad dream.”
Craw-Molinaro was one of as many as 600 people from around Sonoma County who took refuge from the blazes at the community center, sleeping in the halls and aching to hear updates about their homes and livelihoods.
Gov. Jerry Brown declared a state of emergency for Sonoma, Napa and Yuba counties. About 15 Petaluma firefighters were at blazes in Santa Rosa and the Adobe Canyon area Monday afternoon, Capt. Kevin Weaver said. He said the winds had died down momentarily, hopefully bringing a respite for those on the front lines.
Around 2:45 p.m., Rancho Adobe Fire Protection District had two fully-staffed engines responding to fires, with another on standby, according to board president Greg Karraker. Crews were battling a blaze that seemed to be held at bay at Crane Creek Park, and there were no mandatory evacuations in Penngrove Monday afternoon, he said.
There were seven confirmed fatalities as of Monday afternoon, according to the Sonoma County Sheriff’s office.
State officials said the extent of injuries and scope of the damage were still under investigation more than 12 hours into the life of several destructive wildfires, but preliminary estimates suggested at least 1,500 structures had been destroyed, including homes and businesses, with many more threatened, according to Cal Fire director Ken Pimlott.
Along with the community center, nine shelters were open across the city, according to a news release from city officials.
Around 3:20 p.m., city shelters had the capacity for about 2,000 more people. The Petaluma Veterans Building, at 1049 Petaluma Blvd. South; the Cavanagh Center, at 426 8th Street and the Petaluma Fairgrounds, at 175 Fairgrounds Drive, were still accepting evacuees Monday afternoon, according to the press release.