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Stories from the Fire Zone

On Sunday Sep 27, 2020 three fires broke out and merged into what is now called the Glass Fire Incident in Sonoma and Napa counties. It has forced an estimated 70,000 to evacuate, including some 4,500 residents of Santa Rosa’s Oakmont Neighborhood, which is mostly seniors. People are sheltering throughout the region, with family or friends, in RVs or cars, at hotels or County run shelters. But there are less people in shelters this year compared to past years, as County emergency services have coordinated hotel rooms for many people, to reduce COVID risks – but there are some still waiting it out there.  KPFA’s Corinne Smith visited several shelters and talked with people about their evacuation experience.

 

Because of COVID, a lot of evacuation sites are just parking. This is a community park in Santa Rosa called “A Place to Play.” There’s a small tent with snacks, water and a map of the park, but only about a dozen vehicles in the lot.  

“This time, I thought, here we go again,” says Ann Johnson, from Oakmont.

She’s 83, and it’s her second fire evacuation in four years. Last time, she brought a neighbor who’s 14 years older.

“When they notified me, I knew that she didn’t have TV or anything,” she said. “So I said we’ve got to go and be sure she’s okay, and I ended up taking her with me, and we were 15 days, rather than a couple of days.”

This time, the call came around 11pm on a Sunday. Johnson called her neighbor, who’s 97 now. The neighbor was leaving with her caretaker. Then Johnson collected her own go-bag and got in her car. 

“Normally it takes me 5 min, its a mile to the entrance of Oakmont, it took me 47 min.”

Eventually, she got to her niece’s home in another part of Santa Rosa. But soon the niece’s family left the area to get clear of the smoke. So Johnson moved to a friend’s house for the week. Now she’s sitting in the park, in a folding chair, charging her phone. She gets a phone call from a friend while we’re talking, just checking in.

Right now, she’s the only one there. She’s waiting for news, hopefully the all clear to go home. I asked her how she feels with wildfires happening every year now. 

It’s a little scary, and I sat down and I thought about moving somewhere else. But I thought, where would you go. You know, I’m 83, I don’t feel like starting all over again. I have family in various places. But I don’t want to live in Arkansas, I don’t want to live in Colorado. And I don’t want to go back to the East Coast where I started…so where am I gonna go? They’ve got tornados or they’ve got hurricanes, or they’ve got something else. And my friends are here, my life is here now…probably stay put.”

“This is home,” I said.

“Yeah it’s home. If I were to go somewhere else I’d be starting all over, find friends, make friends, make contacts…don’t really want to do it.”

The first night 87-year-old Sue Hattendorf evacuated from her home in Oakmont, she slept in her car in a Kenwood shopping center parking lot.

“There were about a dozen cars there, including myself,” Hattendorf said. “I had gone beyond there, and I decided I didn’t want to go beyond that. So I came back there, spent the night there. First thing the next morning, one of the policeman and I had a discussion, and I asked him how can I get back to the Vet’s memorial, where I was the last time we had this problem.” 

That’s the Santa Rosa Veteran’s Memorial Hall, which is where we’re talking. It’s an evacuation center with about a dozen people staying in cots spread out throughout several rooms. Because of the smoke, and the coronavirus, most people with options are staying away from these shelters. 

Hattendorf says she’s not too worried about the virus: she wears a mask, she washes her hands, the shelter is clean, and overall comfortable. But she can’t wait to go home. 

“I will stay here as long as I absolutely have to, I just want to get back to my house.”

Roughly 12 miles north, in Calistoga, 79-year-old BJ Hopgood woke up around 3am last Monday , to the noise of a Nixel alert on her phone.

 “It sounded like a siren, and all the lights were flashing on the phone…so I got out of bed and went out on my deck and sure enough, I looked toward St Helena, I could see the fire, and I could see smoke.”

Her bags were packed already. She grabbed them, got in her car, then picked up an elderly friend nearby.

“Well I didn’t have a plan really, because my family was all scattering every which way, and everybody was full up to the brim with people, so I just started driving towards Napa,” Hopgood said. “And I took my friend over to her daughters’ house, and the daughter said why don’t you stay here, til you can find something, so I did. And then I went back to St Helena but the smoke was just too bad, I had to get out of there, that’s why the voice is cracking…”

We’re in the parking lot of Napa Valley Community College, where there is a county-run shelter. Hopgood is here to get a hotel room, and is waiting for a call back from County staff with her placement. She needs to plug in her oxygen machine. It’s about 95 degrees out, she’s waiting in her car with the AC blasting. There’s enough smoke to push the Air Quality Index to 250 – “Very Unhealthy.” But she says she’s staying positive.

She lost another home to a house fire in 1992 in Magalia, near Paradise, CA and says it was an opportunity to start over. 

“We came home about 12:30 at night and the home was totally engulfed,” she said. “So I know what it’s like to lose everything. And it is a horrendous, horrendous loss, but I do have to say for those who have lost their home, I want them to look at the bright side. And the bright side is now you can rebuild. That closet you hated because it wasn’t over there now you can put it over there, you can change life around…get through it but be happy, because you’re gonna have some fun times ahead.”

Across town, at the Crosswalk Community Church evacuation shelter, Rodney Blum is departing for a hotel room. He’s a long time Napa Valley resident, a photographer, and former winery tour guide. He lost his housing last year, and so was camping on the mountain above the community of Angwin. He fled the LNU Lighting Complex Fire just a few weeks ago, and had since returned with his dog, Remy.

 “With all these fires have pushed even a black bear up to where we’re at. And we have him flipping rocks over, looking for grubs and food right next to us. We’ve got bucks, they’re fighting for their mates, and it is like, Jumanji up there.”

Blum watched the fire burn throughout Sunday night, enveloping the community of Deer Park below. He tracked familiar homes of friends and family, wineries, the hospital, stores and schools. Finally, he got a ride down with a sympathetic Sheriff’s deputy. 

“So far Angwin…it’s just beyond lucky. This is the third time, starting with the Cobb Fire, where the fire stopped and swirled around,” he said. “I would also like to be very clear about this, the pilot flying the large jet the first day was so incredibly talented and so dedicated. He stayed from dawn until just after sundown. But when he dipped that huge jumbo jet down into the flames, I never saw him drop anything, that’s how low he got and pulled that thing straight back up with the tall trees, and did it all day long. And he personally, Gavin Newsom owes him a big debt of gratitude.”

Blum says the fire came fast, and the sheriff’s team and CalFire did a great job evacuating people quickly. At the shelter too, he said staff there are very kind and even gave him a new phone, which is crucial for getting updates.

As the sun is setting, I call BJ Hopgood to check in, and reach her as she’s settling into her hotel for the night. Napa County officials say hotels are covered until the evacuation orders are lifted, and everyone hopes that will be soon.

 

Corinne Smith is a reporter and producer with KPFA. 

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