Array of Santa Rosa businesses defied Kincade fire evacuation orders
Despite being located in mandatory evacuation zones, certain Santa Rosa businesses continued operating this week in defiance of public safety calls to clear the area because of Kincade fire risks.
They appear to be mostly small companies around the west side of the city that retained power during PG&E’s preemptive shut-off that continues. It also included a Safeway supermarket.
The concern was palpable enough that city officials sent 10 teams of two staffers each around the city on Tuesday to visit businesses and residences to remind them that they were in a mandatory evacuation zone and should leave.
Law enforcement officials said they were worried that defying the Sonoma County Sheriff’s evacuation order posed a public safety threat given that the winds around the Kincade fire easily could have changed direction and took aim at the city and posed problems for emergency crews responding to calls.
“These mandatory evacuation orders were put in place because of what we learned in the Tubbs fire,” Santa Rosa Police Chief Ray Navarro said.
Just as troubling were concerns of employees who worked at the open businesses as well as their family members who contacted The Press Democrat about the matter and asked for anonymity because of possible retaliation from their employers.
“I’m very worried as I’m losing out on money and it’s just another level of stress added and I want to do the right thing,” wrote one worker whose employer on the west side of the city encouraged employees to come into work if possible.
Elected officials said they were troubled by the actions of these companies that kept operating when they were supposed to close. “That’s the wrong message,” county Supervisor Shirlee Zane said.
City Councilman Chris Rogers acknowledged the evacuations were a hardship on small businesses. “If you are a small business and shut down for a few days, I understand the desire to get open,” he said.
Yet, he also was adamant that businesses did the wrong thing by defying evacuations.
“The reality is, businesses should not have been open in the evacuation zone. Period. The City shouldn’t have had to go door to door telling them to be closed, they should have been closed,” Rogers wrote in a Facebook post.
The issue started to emerge Monday night, Rogers said, and became a bigger problem by Tuesday, forcing the city to address it. The tipping point came when Omelette Express in Railroad Square announced on Facebook Tuesday at 4:16 a.m. that it would be open that day in an evacuation zone.
Don Taylor, owner of Omelette Express, said he opened Tuesday morning after seeing others nearby working, specifically the construction crew building the new AC Hotel by Marriott at Fifth and Davis streets.
“I thought they must have lifted the ban or something. But that’s when the city came down and said I had to close” Taylor said. “I was confused because the only angle I had on that was they didn’t seem to stop the hotel people.”
The restaurant was closed on Wednesday, but will open Thursday morning, Taylor said.
Dave’s Market at Third and Dutton streets opened Monday and Tuesday before a city crew visited manager Michelle Berry and asked her to close her store. They told her police officers would follow up to make sure that she closed. They did not and she kept operating Wednesday until the evacuation for the rest of the city was lifted.
Berry said she stayed open this week as Kincade simmered in north Sonoma County because her customers were desperately asking her to stay open for essential and deli selections.
“They wanted normalcy of coming in,” Berry said. “We’re trying not to be disrespectful.”
A yoga studio and a brewery in the evacuation zone also emailed customers notifying them they were open on Tuesday.
Navarro said given the other enormous demands of his officers this week, they did not press the issue.
“We don’t want to arrest business owners for being open,” the police chief said.
Some companies claimed special dispensation from the city. The Airgas location on Piner Road was open as the company was advised by the city that it could continue operations “given the critical nature of our work filling and delivering medical oxygen cylinders,” spokeswoman Kimberly Menard said.
The Safeway store at Marlow Road was open, too.
“We evacuated the Santa Rosa stores where we were told to leave and the other locations remained open,” said spokeswoman Wendy Gutshall, noting the supermarkets have been donating food to Cal Fire.
Workers, however, had a different view. Those who opted not to work likely would have to burn a vacation day or use sick time if the employer did not provide paid time off. “I’m in an evacuation zone as well and can’t go home but I’m supposed to attend work in an evacuated area. I’m confused,” wrote one worker in an email about their office location near Stony Circle.
You can reach Staff Writer Bill Swindell at 707-521-5223 or firstname.lastname@example.org. On Twitter @BillSwindell.