For Sonoma County’s deaf, the fires were a silent emergency

Told through interpreters, here are four stories of deaf survivors.|

There were text messages, automated phone calls, sirens in the street. First responders with bullhorns urged the sleeping to get out and get out now. Neighbors banged on doors again and again.

While some of the hundreds displaced by flames that tore across Sonoma County in the wee hours of Oct. 9 felt the notification process was less than ideal, there was a community of some 500 deaf people for whom Oct. 9 was like every other night - silent.

Once they were finally alerted, often hours after their neighbors, they still struggled to comprehend what exactly was happening until hours later when they encountered hearing people and passed written notes back and forth.

It's a problem, advocates said, that's common in emergency situations everywhere.

“We're the last to find out, and we're the last to evacuate,” said Vance Deatherage, an advocate with Deaf Counseling Advocacy and Referral Agency, a global advocacy group based in San Leandro. He was dispatched to Santa Rosa to improve help for deaf evacuees, adding accessibility options such as signs and video phones to Sonoma County shelters, making them deaf-friendly. Told through interpreters, here are four stories of deaf survivors.

Fortuitous garbage day

In Coffey Park, Oct. 9 was garbage day.

It was about 2:30 in the morning and Destiny Castellanos, 35, felt something vibrate in the house.

“We felt garbage cans blowing over,” said her partner, Doug Fischer. “They were banging in the street. There was noise in the street. Something wasn't right. Destiny felt something wasn't right.”

She went to the window and the smoke flooded into the house. Fischer, 39, noticed cars leaving the neighborhood, neighbors fleeing. But they didn't see the flames.

“We couldn't speak with our neighbors,” Castellanos said. “Fortunately, our immediate neighbors knew we were deaf and they were gesturing to get out of there. They were flagging us to get out as soon as possible.”

They grabbed their two young daughters and son - all under 7 years old - piled into the family car, and left behind the rental home they'd lived in for almost nine years. That's when they finally saw the flames. The embers. Unable to listen to the radio, they still had no knowledge of the fires' magnitude.

“So we were just following our instincts and we decided just to get out of there, and to go to Doran Beach and to get to the coast,” Castellanos said. The next day, their home was gone.

Woken up by smoke

Robert Zunino, 72, and Diana Zunino, 73, both deaf, also lost their Coffey Park home in the blaze.

Diana Zunino woke just before 1:30 a.m. Oct. 9 to the smell of thick smoke inside the home they'd owned for 18 years.

“She woke me up and I was fast asleep,” Robert Zunino said. “She really had to shake me to get me awake, and she said ‘There's something burning. There's something burning.'?”

They looked outside the window and saw three garbage cans blown over. Then, outside, they saw a stream of neighbors' cars vacating the neighborhood.

“I started to pick up the garbage can on the other side of the street, and I noticed someone coming over,” he said. “He said, ‘Get out!' ‘Get out!'?”

The neighbor pleaded with them until finally they understood. There was a fire, and they had to leave immediately.

“We had no warning otherwise,” Robert Zunino said. “If it hadn't been for the garbage cans blowing over, we would have had no idea. They saved our lives.”

They fled and spent the night in their car in a parking lot. The whole night, not knowing what was happening. The Zuninos awoke to a thick layer of ash all over their car. They didn't know the magnitude of the blaze until Monday afternoon, when Diana Zunino started exchanging notes with a hardware store employee who told her the Kohl's and hotel near their home was gone. That's when they returned.

“Robert was driving, and he was saying, ‘Where's our house?'?” Diana Zunino said. “I was like, ‘That's it!' And he was like, ‘What, that?' And I said, ‘Right there.' I could see the number on the curb. It was so sad.”

Fire closing in

Autumn Dixon, 30, was asleep in her parents' Coffey Park home well past when the rest of the neighbors evacuated. Her parents, away for the night in Duncans Mills, were the first to alert her to the flames by racing back to Santa Rosa, but not until 3:45 a.m. By then, the fire was already on their front lawn.

“They drove from Duncans Mills in 22 minutes. Normally it's a 45-minute drive to our house, but it took my mom 22 minutes just to save me, just to save my life,” she said. “Some people may have knocked or called, but I'm deaf, so I didn't hear those warnings.”

Their house, too, is gone.

Firefighters burst in

For 38 years, Nichola Horrell- Schmitz and her mother, who is also deaf, have been going to the Bennett Valley Fire Department near their home to alert firefighters that they were a deaf family living at their address, a goat rescue farm on Pressley Road in rural Santa Rosa. But on Oct. 9, when fire raged just outside their home, her family of four found themselves fast asleep until 3:07 a.m., when firefighters crashed through their home, literally pulling them from their beds to safety.

“We didn't understand what they were saying,” she said. “We didn't know.”

It was a full five hours after most of her neighbors evacuated, said Horrel-Schmitz, and the rescue only came thanks to a neighbor who called 911, alerting first responders to their presence.

“The entire street had been evacuated already. Why didn't they come get us?” Horrel- Schmitz said. “Because the system is set up for people who can hear. People who can hear and who can speak. What we call ‘hearing people.'?”

Once evacuated, she was separated from her mother, who was taken to Santa Rosa Memorial Hospital for treatment of smoke inhalation. The two wouldn't reunite until 2 p.m., when after a long search she finally found her mother in her hospital room watching TV silently, without captions.

“And then I found out there were other deaf people in the same boat as me,” she said. “We were all the last ones in the area to be evacuated. There needs to be a system set up that automatically connects us, that automatically notifies us like a red siren or something, so we know it's time to evacuate.”

Their living spaces survived, but the outbuildings are gone. Horrell-Schmitz credits the goats, who chewed away all the fuel surrounding their home.

You can reach Staff Writer Christi Warren at 707-521-5205 or On Twitter @SeaWarren.

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