Out of the smoke-filled night they shuffled in, some in slippers and pajamas, loved ones and pets in tow, seeking refuge from a nightmare inferno that would upend their lives.
What they found at Sonoma County shelters during the recent wildfires was exactly what they needed at the time: a place to lay their heads, charge a cellphone and figure out what to do next.
Now, more than 10 days later, the quest continues for hundreds of mostly low-income people who remain at places like Santa Rosa’s Finley Community Center, the Sonoma County fairgrounds or a handful of smaller shelters.
With an already tight rental market, they are faced with a daunting challenge to make the leap from an army cot in a gym to a bed in a permanent home.
“I’m trying every day,” said Cymone Weddington, 25, a single mother of three kids who is staying at the Calvary Chapel of Santa Rosa. “I know a door will open.”
Weddington is one of an estimated 435 people still living in shelters earlier this week, down from about 2,300 at the disaster’s peak.
All told, more than 100,000 Sonoma County residents were displaced by fires starting Oct. 8 that have killed 23 people in the county.
Cal Fire officials estimated 5,900 homes in Napa and Sonoma counties were destroyed; city and county officials put the Sonoma County home losses at more than 6,700.
Before the smoke cleared, concern was mounting over where they will go — and for how long — as the region rebuilds. Santa Rosa officials are considering a range of options, from asking for hundreds of FEMA trailers to building housing from shipping containers. Officials estimate the rebuilding process will take years.
“The need is so huge that we can’t discount anything that puts a roof over people’s heads during the period of time when we’re trying to rebuild housing,” Mayor Chris Coursey said.
In the meantime, some people will remain in shelters. Kenneth Church, day supervisor of the Red Cross operation at the fairgrounds, said the Grace Pavilion will stay open indefinitely. He would not release the number of people still sleeping there but said the population has declined as residents have been allowed back in their homes.
Typically, he said, low-income and the uninsured remain in shelters the longest because those with more income can stay in hotels or rent.
“People with fewer resources take longer to get back on their feet,” Church said. “We’ll be here as long as needed.”
The firestorm obliterated housing that took decades to build. Many sought refuge with family or friends, or checked into hotels, unsure of the fate of their homes.
Others landed at one of 23 shelters scattered across the county where they could get hot meals, file an insurance claim or apply for aid.
Dan Cobb and his mother, Luana, burned out of the Coddingtown Mobile Home Park, joined the throngs who went to the Finley Center.
As they wait for insurance money to buy a new double-wide, the Cobbs eat in an auditorium next to strangers, watch news reports on a community TV and get free massages from volunteers.