The sign that stands at the corner of Pythian Road and Highway 12 in east Santa Rosa advertises live Christmas trees and fresh-cut wreaths, an ode to holiday traditions amid the whoosh of traffic Monday along the corridor blackened by the Glass fire in late September.
Across the highway to the east, at the tiny homes of the Los Guilicos Village homeless shelter, dozens of residents sorted through freshly washed belongings, swept and tidied their 64-square-foot cabins and enjoyed their first meal back here in more than a month.
In the aftermath of the 67,000-acre Glass fire, which destroyed more than 1,500 structures, including four tiny homes at Los Guilicos, the residents had been displaced, scattered into a variety of living quarters during the past six weeks. Six found permanent housing. At least one relapsed into alcohol addiction.
But more than 50 came home Monday.
“Everybody was really elated to be able to come back here,” said Chris Grabill, director of housing and shelter services for the nonprofit St. Vincent de Paul, which runs the shelter on a contract basis for Sonoma County.
It sits on the Los Guilicos Juvenile Justice Center campus, across the street from the 5,000-person retirement community in Oakmont. When the Glass fire roared over the mountains from Napa County on Sept. 27, the whole valley was in peril, forcing thousands of people to flee.
Navaro Whitfield, a Los Guilicos Village resident, first got word from the mother of his youngest child. They’re estranged now, but she called to warn him that he and the village were in the rapidly expanding evacuation zone. Whitfield paused his PlayStation 3 game, made his way to the main tent at the campus and noticed ash falling from the sky.
By the time he packed up his car, the PlayStation stowed inside, and headed toward Santa Rosa, he could see flames cresting over Sugarloaf Ridge State Park.
“It was crazy. I’ve never seen anything like that,” he said.
Whitfield and dozens of other Los Guilicos residents joined evacuees from Oakmont neighborhood and beyond in a slow stream of westbound traffic on Highway 12.
Residents at Los Guilicos Village had to wait three weeks before they allowed back to check on belongings. The county campus had suffered $8 million in damage, and four tiny homes, valued at $10,000 apiece, had been destroyed.
One of those homes belonged to Catherine Barnett, who moved to Los Guilicos about three months ago. When her girlfriend came to pick her up the night of the fire, Barnett recalled she took only her essentials: toothbrush, toothpaste, deodorant, a change of clothes.
“I left all my stuff here, then I found out that it burned,” Barnett, 64, said Monday.
On Monday, she was checking out a new cabin, freshly built and lacking only the all-important heating element amid a recent cold snap. St. Vincent de Paul has spent $12,000 for hotel rooms the past four nights to accommodate the shelter residents who were sleeping in tents before their return home Monday, said the nonprofit’s executive director, Jack Tibbetts.
The makeshift arrangements resulted from the difficulty of finding interim living quarters that residents’ felt were safe amid the pandemic.
By the time Tibbetts and Grabill arrived at the Santa Rosa Veterans Memorial Building the first night of the Glass fire, one group of homeless residents they helped evacuate had been sitting outside the evacuation center for an hour, watching as hundreds of people clogged into the hall.
“They were scared to go inside,” said Tibbetts, who is also a Santa Rosa City Council member.
The nonprofit team had spent the past six months coaching dozens of residents at the Los Guilicos Village on the dangers of COVID-19.
“This looks like COVID central,” one said, according to Tibbetts.
“A lot of people shared that concern,” he said. “No social distancing. Some with masks, some not.”
The nonprofit’s contract with the county showed it was not responsible for the residents’ welfare after their safe arrival at the evacuation center, according to Tibbetts. But their reticence to join the fray at that site led to a reckoning, he said.
“That’s where we kind of did that about face and decided to extend our service,” he said. “And we’ve been trying to provide for folks as best we can ever since.”
The pair looked for shelter spaces in a variety of places, including tents at a parking lot already used for trailers housing homeless residents under St. Vincent de Paul’s care.
“We had some people in trailers, some people in tents, some people in motels, some people at Alliance Redwoods — it was just all of the above, whatever we could find that was suitable for people,” Grabill said.
The displacement has been rough on many of the shelter residents, who’ve relied on the stability of life at Los Guilicos Village to help reset their lives.
“It was definitely a setback. We know one guy who was clean and sober after he got here, he fell off the wagon,” Tibbetts said. “I don’t suspect he’s the only one. I think with the amount of upheaval these folks have experienced (it’s not surprising).”
But Grabill said he was gratified to see six more residents of the outdoor camp find permanent housing of late, bringing to 36 the number of residents that have moved into longer-term quarters.
Whitfield is one of those. He is set to move Thursday with another Los Guilicos resident, Dwayne Benedict, to a home in Cotati. Benedict summed up the their improving lot succinctly: from homeless, to housed, to evacuated, to now.
“I just got blessed, pretty much,” he said.
You can reach Staff Writer Tyler Silvy at 707-526-8667 or email@example.com.