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Healdsburg on watch amid evacuation warning over Walbridge fire

Silvia Hiles has been here before.

Using a ladder to reach the upper portion of the glass double doors in front of the One-O-One dress shop in downtown Healdsburg, Hiles methodically stretched blue painter’s tape over every gap in the doorway — the better to keep the smoke and ash out.

“I feel like, ’Wow, not again,’” she said, stretching the tape to the lower reaches of the door. “Really? With everything else going on? Things were starting to look up and now this happens.”

Hiles learned the tape trick the hard way. When the Tubbs fire destroyed a huge swath of Santa Rosa three years ago, followed by the ash and poor air quality from the Camp fire in 2018 and the mass evacuations in the face of the Kincade fire last fall, she’s had some aftereffects in the store she manages. So when she woke Thursday morning to both that familiar, eerie orange sky and the previous night’s evacuation warning, she pulled out her roll of blue tape and got to work.

“I felt like I couldn’t ask anyone to come to work,” she said. “So I took the cash to the bank and am sealing up the doors.”

While many went the way of Hiles, shuttering store fronts and staying off the roads Thursday, others milled around town, doing what felt normal. Residents walked their dogs and children rode scooters, undeterred by the bank of smoke to the west and warnings of encroaching flames.

The Walbridge fire has been burning uncontrolled in the hills west of town and prompted evacuation warnings late Wednesday that included all 12,000 residents of the city squarely in the flats of the Highway 101 corridor.

To the west, Guerneville, Rio Nido and other areas along the Russian River have been under mandatory evacuation orders since Tuesday.

Winery-dense Westside Road, a popular route among cyclists, is acting as the dividing line between those under orders and warnings in the Healdsburg area.

Oma and Jim Taylor made a light grocery run Thursday morning before heading back to their home on Dry Creek Road. They had a motor home packed and ready to go, but recent firefighting efforts, including air support, made them feel calmer about the potential need to evacuate.

“I don’t feel as nervous and uptight as I did yesterday,” Oma Taylor said.

Bob Lawrence, 80, didn’t show any sign of nerves Thursday as he walked his 6-year-old Norwegian elkhound, Mel, around the square. Still, he was booked for two nights at the Lodge at Tiburon, just in case.

“My wife is more concerned about things,” he said. “I think between sheltering in place for the last six months and now...”

But Lawrence did express concern for the cumulative toll the pandemic and now another round of wildfires could have on children, working parents and essential workers.

“Kids can’t go to school, people are working — I’m much more concerned about that,” he said.

Saul Carrillo was doing his best to keep a local business busy Thursday as he picked up lunch at El Farolito just off the square. Wearing a NASA face covering, Carrillo said he was tracking winds and fire data rather than relying on social media and news reports.

“I’ve been here since 1972,” he said. “A couple of fires aren’t going to scare me.”

Carrillo did make a trek west on Wednesday to see the path of the blaze.

“I’m not nervous,” he said. “That’s why we are out here eating. Like the last fires, I’m just keeping an eye on the winds. What good is it to be running around like rats?”

Ralph Purugganan was running around Thursday, but made sure he did it early, before the smoke settled in over town. Purugganan is manager at Healdsburg Running Company — a shop that has positioned itself as a beacon of normalcy and even optimism at a time when both feel in short supply.

As of early this week, the shop was still hosting socially distanced group runs, was still fitting people for running shoes in its “parklet” on the street, and still serving as a hub of information — both in person and on social media.

On Thursday, owner Skip Brand was delivering sandwiches to an area fire station, and, according to Purugganan, the shop was already in the process of having “#SonomaStrong” shirts printed to raise money for those affected by the fires.

They already had the stencil.

You can reach Staff Writer Kerry Benefield at 707-526-8671 or kerry.benefield@pressdemocrat.com. You can reach Staff Writer Will Schmitt at 707-521-5207 or will.schmitt@pressdemocrat.com.

Kerry Benefield

Columnist, The Press Democrat

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