Wine Country Fire evacuee centers offer safety amid uncertainty

As the adrenalin wore off for the people who had been uprooted from their lives by fire and deposited at the Finley Community Center in Santa Rosa, boredom set in. The finicky questions began to pile up.

When will doctor appointments be rescheduled? When will cell service be reliable again? Does insurance cover nights spent in a hotel? Is the house still standing?


And another: How long will I be here?

“It’s comfortable, other than the dogs barking and the people snoring,” said Liz Fernandez, 60, as she wondered whether she would soon spend a third night in a facility that usually hosts things like weddings.

Fernandez, a resident of the fire-ravaged Fountaingrove neighborhood of Santa Rosa, ended up at the community center on Monday before dawn.

The space where she and another 50 or so people counted the hours on Tuesday is an example of one of the less-obvious lines of defense in disaster response — the evacuation centers that spring up within hours and become safe havens for people who might have nowhere else to go.

Places like Community Crosswalk Church in Napa, which opened its doors late Sunday night for people fleeing the Atlas and then the Partrick fires.

The church on First Street near Highway 29 has played such a role for decades, most recently after the 2014 earthquake in Napa. There’s a memorandum of understanding with the American Red Cross and Napa County that the facility will be available when called on. Among the attractions: a gym with showers and an industrial kitchen, as well as ample parking and dependable Wi-Fi.

“I got a call from the sheriff’s office at 11 o’clock, and told them we could be open within half an hour,” the pastor, Peter Shaw, said Tuesday. The Atlas Fire had begun around 9:30 Sunday night.

By the time Shaw had drive west from his home in Solano County, the first of a half-dozen or so Red Cross volunteers were arriving for the night shift. By 12:30 a.m. Monday, when a Red Cross trailer pulled in with cots and chairs, there were a dozen church members on the scene.

The main rush of evacuees began after 3 a.m. and by daybreak more than 250 people were sleeping on cots in the gym or chairs in the sanctuary. It was a disparate lot — from fire-dazed homeowners who had fled the steep slopes along the Silverado Trail, and tourists dislodged from the Carneros Resort and Spa, to residents of a nursing home as well as their caregivers.

Church members made coffee, or used flashlights to steer evacuees to safe parking in a lot that otherwise was illuminated only by the fires on the ridges above. The work of signing people in, and attending to physical or mental needs, was handled by county employees and trained Red Cross volunteers.

“We play host,” Shaw said. “The cool thing about this congregation is, they know this is what we do.”

The Model Bakery, which has an outpost in Napa’s Oxbow Market, sent boxes of croissants and pastries at 5 a.m. Two restaurants sent breakfast burritos — which worried health inspectors who stopped by later in the morning, since uneaten burritos were still sitting out at room temperature.

At Finlay Community Center, Santa Rosa Mayor Chris Coursey stopped by early Tuesday afternoon to talk with evacuees about how the city is dealing with the damage. It was the first time many in the shelter had heard of the sheer scale of the fire.

“I’m asking for patience, but I know that’s hard,” Coursey said as evacuees nibbled on Ramen noodles, muffins, and watery fruit.

There also was a booth inside the shelter set up by Eddie Sandoval, a State Farm insurance agent.

“I can’t really answer many questions because the assessments haven’t been made,” the agent said.

He handed out vouchers for hotels to home insurance clients of his who were there. And he encouraged others to be tenacious when dealing with their own agents in the months to come.

By Tuesday, 20 evacuation centers were open throughout Sonoma County and 5,000 people had used them the night before. As for how long the centers will remain open, nobody is making any guesses.

“We’re still very much in the middle of the life-safety period,” said Molly Rattigan, the county’s deputy executive officer. “We haven’t been able to talk about re-population of evacuated areas, because we still need to get the fire contained.”

Even so, the population in the evacuation centers dwindled as once-threatened areas were reopened to residents.

One of returnees — briefly — was Monica Reeder.

Reeder spent two nights in the Petaluma Community Center before she ventured out to check on her apartment on Hopper Avenue in Santa Rosa. There, she found her home untouched with pictures still hanging on the walls and dishes still in the sink.

But all around her was a different scene. Houses on her street were reduced to charred wood chips and twisted metal, leaving nothing but the occasional stove and fireplace.

“I went from relief, to total shock,” Reeder said, as she stood in the rubble.

Finding her home intact was like winning the lottery, she said — but what now? There was no power, or running water, and the air was thick with smoke.

Finally, Reeder packed two bags and headed for her son’s house a few miles away. She knew only one thing for sure: “I’m not sleeping on another cot.”

Trisha Thadani and John King are San Francisco Chronicle staff writers. Email: tthadani@sfchronicle.com; jking@sfchronicle.com Twitter: @TrishaThadani; @JohnKingSFChron

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