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Kerry Benefield: In Rohnert Park, a refuge for those displaced by fires

Bill Sirvatka, who lost his home on Bardy Road in Santa Rosa, with his dogs Gunner, left, and Brutus, at the Oxford Suites hotel in Rohnert Park. (Kerry Benefield/for The Press Democrat)

KERRY BENEFIELD,

ROHNERT PARK — The dogs give it away. They are everywhere in the newly opened Oxford Suites hotel in Rohnert Park. In the lobby, in the elevator and behind countless doors where guests are staying.

The weary faces pulling on a pint of beer or sipping a glass of wine at happy hour hold leashes in their hands or have pets at their feet. They are exhausted from an ordeal without end, its origins, for most, the early morning hours of Monday in a windstorm that touched off a deadly and indiscriminate disaster.

The vast majority of guests at the Oxford Suites are refugees. They have fled fires that have burned for days, destroying thousands of homes, and as of Saturday night, taken 40 lives across Northern California.

This place offers security, if not some solace.

“Misery loves company,” said Craig Gregory, standing in the lobby of the hotel with Max, one of his two Dachshunds, as other guests in similar states of shock and fatigue filed in and out.

Most of the people in this hotel and countless others across the North Bay arrived in a state of panic days ago. Some thought they’d be gone a day or two. Others fled ominous scenes that foretold they would not likely see their homes again.

Kathy Gregory, who along with her husband Craig, lost her home on Upper Ridge Road in Santa Rosa, said the dash from her house was so fast that today she can make little sense of her choices.

Smart? She brought her computer tower. Less obvious? She brought her knitting needles.

“I took my knitting. Really?” she said, smiling.

But she and Craig also took their two dogs, Max and Daisy, and their four birds. They found a temporary home for the birds and the Oxford Suites allowed them to bunk with Max and Daisy.

“There are hotels that are not bending their rules,” she said, acknowledging the hospitality of Oxford for family members with two legs and four.

That’s been huge for many.

Guests lavished praise on hotel officials who have looked the other way as restrictions on pets were lifted. Dogs, birds, cats and even fish, are now guests here. Bags of dog food lean against the reception desk alongside an oversized box of treats. Clothes are being given out in the conference room. Breakfast is free, as is a salad bar in the evening.

In the morning, guests cram into the lobby and make a plan for the day. The new Federal Emergency Management Agency assistance center in downtown Santa Rosa was a big draw Saturday. Others were making runs to insurance agents and still others were doing basic shopping: underwear, suitcases, medicines.

Elevator rides are short trips of commiseration. It takes only a look to know if a fellow traveler is on the same road, and most are, said Kathy Gregory.

“We don’t say ‘I’m so sorry,’” she said. “We are all sorry. The person who hasn’t lost their home is sorry because they can’t understand.”

Gregory said there is a comfort in being around people in the same state of loss. Useful information is shared, tips passed along.

In some cases, small groups of neighbors are making their home here together. Those who used to live three doors down from each other are now on the same hotel hallway, navigating their journeys together. Families are encamped here too. The lobby is daily transformed into a mini-command center.

At night, when there is little else to do, some guests chat and wonder when they will be allowed back home. For some the question cuts deeper: What will life be like without the home they knew?

“Everyone has got a story,” said Bill Sirvatka, who lost his home of 22 years on Bardy Road on the western flank of Trione-Annadel State Park.

Sirvatka was in the hotel lobby with his two dogs: the 135-pound Brutus, a Great Pyrenees, and Gunner, a slightly smaller Akbash.

“I thought I dodged a bullet, but the chimney is all that’s left,” he said.

Sirvatka said that local businesses, when they find out his circumstances, refuse to let him pay. He was in a pet store in San Rafael when the clerk wouldn’t take his money.

“Once I told them I was from Santa Rosa, he said ‘Take the food.’”

Other hotel guests said Apple gave them discounts, as well as Macy’s. Amy’s Drive Thru across the street from the Oxford Suites, is giving free food for those displaced by the fire, as well as first responders.

They are small kindnesses in a time of deep sorrow.

“There is a lot of hugging and crying,” Sirvatka said.

And a lot of quiet comfort from temporary neighbors who are uniquely qualified to understand.

You can reach staff columnist Kerry Benefield at 707-526-8671 or kerry.benefield@pressdemocrat.com, on Twitter @benefield and on Instagram at kerry.benefield.