By Katherine Minkiewicz
Santa Rosa resident Sandra Geary was on a leisurely weekend camping trip in Nevada with her husband when she woke to frantic knocks on their RV door Monday morning from friends, telling her to turn on the news -- upon watching the latest reports on the fire in her motorhome, she and her husband immediately recognized the structure engulfed in flames that newscasters were showing on screen. The building ravaged by flames shown was their home and that day, Sandra and her husband watched from miles away as their house burned to the ground.
This devastating story is just one patchwork in the large quilt of stories that are surfacing after Santa Rosa city officials and fire crews are updating the public on the magnitude of damage that several fast moving North Bay wildfires have caused.
According to Cal Fire, around 2,000 homes and commercial buildings have been destroyed, with around 17 deaths according to the Washington Post and more than 300 people missing due to the 45,000-acre massive fire.
The Sonoma County Sheriff’s Office reported Tuesday morning that nine of these deaths occurred in Sonoma County and were fire related. According to the report the sheriff’s office has also received “more than 200 reports of missing people” and that they have “located about 45 of those missing people” as of Tuesday afternoon.
At a news conference Tuesday, it was reported that among those dead was an elderly couple in Napa County, Charles and Sara Rippey, both respectively 100 and 98-years-old. Cal Fire also reported that three were killed in Mendocino County, as well as two other deaths near Yuba County and Sacramento.
In the Tubbs and Potter fires alone, near Geary’s home there are a reported 571 structures lost with over $1 million dollars’ worth of damage, according to figures compiled by the National Interagency Fire Center.
The Geary home was just one of these hundreds of buildings destroyed and while she said she is thankful her and her husband have the motorhome to seek refuge in, it is still difficult to imagine that their home is no longer there.
“All of our friends said we were in shock because you don’t know how to react when you lose your home. And people are telling you, well you got your health, you’re OK and we know that, but you’ve lost your life. You have your life, but you’ve lost everything. We lost birth certificates, documents, pictures. Everything about us we’ve lost,” Geary said. “We haven’t even seen the house yet, but we’re expecting the trauma of actually physically going there and realizing it is gone.”
Her and her husband and Charlie, their dog were only on a short camping trip in Reno and brought along three days’ worth of clothes and she said the severity of the loss hit her when she went into Cabela’s to get extra RV supplies and clothes.
“We went into a Cabela’s to get something for our motorhome. My husband said I guess you might want to pick up a couple of items of clothing because whatever is in the motorhome that’s all you have. I turned around and looked at the clothes and burst into tears and then my husband burst into tears and the two of us were standing in the middle of the store crying,” Geary explained.
Geary said she and her husband’s next step is to park their motorhome in Penngrove, get in a car and go to the remains of their home with a bucket and shovel and see what they can salvage.
Geary also explained that she knows about six or seven friends who have also lost their homes in the wake of the disaster.
The City of Santa Rosa did issue a special notice on Santa Rosa evacuations early Wednesday morning, reminding residents there is, “absolutely no entry into evacuated areas while evacuations are still being enforced.”
To help those who have lost their homes and the victims of the devastating fires, there are various places where people can make a donation.
Airbnb launched “Open Homes,” a program where Alameda, San Francisco and Marin residents who are hosts, can open their homes for those in need of shelter. The company is also looking for more volunteers to open up their homes as temporary shelters. The Napa Valley Community Disaster Relief Fund is collecting monetary donations (visit napavalleycf.org for more information) and the Red Cross is accepting donations as well, which can be made online on the Red Cross website or by calling, 1-800 RED CROSS.
Local Rohnert Park efforts to volunteer and donate were made Tuesday at the Burton Avenue Recreation Center, while the evacuation center is now closed and is no longer accepting donations, volunteers and city employees said they are pleased to have seen the outpouring of community support and generosity.
Ellen Beardsley, who was volunteering at the shelter as a city employee said there were around 100 volunteers who came by the shelter Tuesday to help sort and sift through the piles of clothes, blankets, toiletries, food and baby supplies that were stacked nearly high to the ceiling.
“The outpouring of people has been wonderful,” she said.
TJ Machado, a volunteer, said he had seen more volunteers come to the shelter than actual evacuees, certainly a heartwarming case of support and aid from RP residents.
Cindy Bagley, Rohnert Park community services manager, said even though the evacuation center is now closed and no longer accepting donations, volunteers will continue to work at the center.
“People will stay to help filter through donations, organize and sift through it and work with the emergency operation center,” Bagley explained. “The outpouring of this community is amazing.” The 7-8 fire evacuees at the Burton Avenue Center will be transported to an Evac center in Santa Rosa, she also explained.
Federal aid through FEMA (the Federal Emergency Management Agency), will also start being available to the counties affected by the fire as President Trump approved a Major Disaster Declaration for California earlier this afternoon according to the U.S. Department of Homeland Security press office.
Geary said of the future clean- up process for her and her family to try and get their day-to-day life back together, “This is not a quick thing, this isn’t a thing that happens for a week. Everybody we know has said come stay with us, which is wonderful, but this isn’t for a week. This isn’t for a month, this isn’t for six months, probably a year to a two-year project if you want to rebuild.”
As of yesterday afternoon, current evacuation areas include Bennett Valley Golf Course, the Ida Clayton area of Geyserville and Sonoma Valley at Moon Mountain Road, Mission Way, London Way, Martin Road, Cavedale Road and Adobe Way, according to the Sonoma County Sheriff’s Office. The sheriff’s office is also recommending that residents of Agua Caliente near Highway 12 between Madrone Road and Agua Caliente Road have a bag of essentials prepared in case of the need of evacuation.
For updates on evacuation notices follow the Sonoma County Sheriff’s Office Nixle page or their Facebook page at, www.facebook.com/sonoma.sheriff/.
During a 9:30 a.m. press conference, a Sonoma County Sheriff Rob Giordano said of the deadly fire, “This fire has been unbelievably fast, the timeline is almost unperceivable.”
Full fire victim interviews to come via soundcloud.com. Check the Community Voice Facebook page at www.facebook.com/communityvoicenews for links to interviews and more updates on the Sonoma Complex fire.