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Read all of the PD's fire coverage here

Before the tragic, terrifying, heroic early days of the October fires slip any further away, there’s something nurse, nursing teacher and Red Cross disaster volunteer Peggy Goebel would like to say about the MASH-like medical unit that sprang spontaneously to life within the evacuation center at Santa Rosa’s Veterans Memorial Building.

Goebel believes that what began to happen at that disaster center in the wee hours of Monday, Oct. 9 was quite likely unprecedented. Along with legions of able-bodied fire evacuees, seriously ailing people streamed into the hall by the dozens, then by the hundreds, from flame-threatened care homes, private residences, the nursing wings of retirement facilities, and for a time, from the evacuated Kaiser Permanente Santa Rosa Medical Center.

The entirety of what was available to those patients, at first, was a place to sit. This was a new experience for Sonoma County and the North Bay; such a disaster had never struck here before.

“Literally, we opened up and we had nothing,” Goebel said. “It was chaos. People were there with no shoes. They were there in their jammies.”

Many were acutely ill.

“They didn’t have their medicines. They didn’t have their supplies,” Goebel said. “People were in a state of shock. People were in tears.”

There was no script, no plan, no known model for what to do to provide the needed medical care. Goebel believes a debt of gratitude is owed the many medical professionals and others who recognized need in a crisis and at a scale they’d never before witnessed, and acted.

“It was this county rising up to take care of its own,” Goebel said.

About 3 a.m. Oct. 9, Goebel, a longtime resident of Windsor who’s taught nursing at Santa Rosa Junior College for 42 years, arrived at the Red Cross center at the Santa Rosa Veterans Memorial Building. She was, at that instant, just another evacuee.

Flames had moved within about a half mile of her home, she said, “and the wind was blowing in our direction.” What clinched her decision to drive to evacuate was a message alerting her that her son, Jeff, was headed there, having been evacuated from his home on North Dutton Avenue.

Goebel arrived at the vets building. As a career nurse and veteran Red Cross disaster volunteer — she’d been home less than three weeks from tending to hurricane victims in Beaumont, Texas — her attention went immediately to fellow firestorm evacuees who clearly were not well.

She texted nurse Cindy Jones, with the regional American Red Cross, and told her she was at the evacuation center and ready to go to work. Jones, who was still in Texas, directed her to locate the Red Cross site manager, Mike Conroy.

Goebel found him in front of the building and told him she was an RN and a disaster volunteer. Conroy called to someone, “Get her a (Red Cross) vest!”

Things started to happen.

First, Goebel buttonholed a man wearing a veterans cap and directed him to find the coffee supplies and get some brewing. She enlisted physically able evacuees to help people get to the bathrooms.

Finding helpers wasn’t hard.

“People were constantly stepping and saying, ‘How can I help? What can I do?’” Goebel said.

Resources To Help

North Bay Suicide Prevention 24-hour hotline: 855-587-6373

NAMI Sonoma County warmline: 707-527-6655

Sonoma County Psychiatric Emergency Services: 707-576-8181

For information on Sonoma County support groups, call 707-527-6655 or go to namisonomacounty.org

Doctors and nurses from Kaiser and elsewhere began to arrive. Goebel asked one Kaiser physician to ask ailing people what prescriptions they used, and to prepare a list for needed supplies.

Sometime after 8 a.m. that Monday she asked two ambulance technicians from San Mateo to take her and Red Cross nurse Ann Eichorn to the Costco on Santa Rosa Avenue. The store doesn’t open until 10, so Goebel banged on the door until an employee answered.

Allowed in, she and her helpers gathered up over-the-counter medication, wound-care supplies and more, paying for them with a Red Cross credit card.

Two other nurses took ambulances to the evacuated Kaiser and Sutter Santa Rosa Regional Hospital to gather up clinical necessities such as insulin, Coumadin and IV bags. The doctor who wrote up the list of prescriptions needed by individual patients came up with 67.

“There were no pharmacies open in town, except Tuttle’s,” Goebel said. She carried a plea to pharmacy owner Robert Pelligrini.

Hours later Pellegrini delivered the 67 prescriptions to the vets building. He declined to be paid.

Later Monday, Dr. Joe Clendenin arrived at the evacuation center. The semi-retired family practitioner and Red Cross disaster volunteer had been in Boston that morning when he learned of the fires.

He met Goebel and became her primary partner in leading the medical response at the evacuation center. As more evacuees streamed in, they and the other volunteers extended care also to medically compromised new arrivals across the street at the fairgrounds’ Grace Pavilion and Kraft building.

Clendenin sensed at once that this was different from the other disasters he’d responded to with the Red Cross. He recalled that when he volunteered with people displaced by Hurricane Sandy in 2015, “We didn’t get all the sick, sick people like we had” in Santa Rosa, estimated to number as many as 840 people, nearly a quarter of them from Kaiser and Sutter hospitals.

At the evacuation center at the Santa Rosa veterans building, Goebel said, “It was like running a giant hospital. And that clearly is not what the Red Cross is expected to do.”

Doctors, nurses, medical technicians, all sorts of specialists and nursing students arrived Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday and asked to be put to work. But the spontaneous medical mission needed more help.

Travers Ebling stepped up. The partner of Dr. Tara Scott, director of Sutter’s Santa Rosa Family Medicine Residency program, Ebling created an account on signupgenius.com that asked medical professionals to volunteer at the evacuation centers at the vets building and fairgrounds.

More than 600 doctors, nurses and others from throughout the Bay Area responded. Goebel remembered, “I had one group from Stanford say, ‘If you need us to wash the bathrooms, we’ll do it.’ ”

For days, Goebel and Clendenin took turns grabbing what sleep they could on cots at the vets building.

As the crisis response moved into its second week, Red Cross volunteers from across the state and the country were in place and able to spell exhausted locals. Evacuee numbers fell as people were allowed to return home, picked up by relatives or found alternatives to the disaster shelters.

Goebel believes that each of the doctors, nurses, medical technicians, nursing students and others who helped provide care at the shelters at the vets building and fairgrounds deserves thanks for a remarkable fact, given that 500 to 600 evacuees arrived with significant to severe medical ailments:

“We did not lose one life.”

Chris Smith is at 707-521-5211 and chris.smith@pressdemocrat.com.

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