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Sonoma County shelters house thousands fleeing fires, with room for more

A blaring loudspeaker roused Blanca Muñoz from bed at 2 a.m. Monday as a violent firestorm raced toward her Coffey Park neighborhood.

A police officer was ordering residents to flee - a command Muñoz did not immediately recognize because she doesn’t speak English.

Eventually, the scent of smoke reached her home, sending her into a panic. She rushed to wake her mother and son. In the next room, her sister and brother-in-law, who own the three-bedroom home, grabbed their baby and headed for the door.

“We didn’t know what to do,” said her mother, Joaquina Muñoz, 67. “We just walked around in circles not knowing what to grab.”

Sitting in the middle of Sebastopol’s Analy High School gymnasium Tuesday, one of three dozen emergency shelters in churches, high schools, fairgrounds and community centers spread throughout the county, the women talked about losing their home and belongings in the fire. Blanca Muñoz remained stoic, but her mother was upset and defeated.

“I haven’t slept in two nights,” Joaquina Muñoz said in Spanish, crying. “It’s the stress.”

Blanca Muñoz said it was difficult to explain to her 6-year-old son why they had to sleep in the shelter, which officials planned to shut down before lunchtime today, transferring evacuees to Santa Rosa. Muñoz said she and her family will move temporarily into a church.

The Muñoz family members were among the thousands seeking refuge in one of Sonoma County’s 36 open shelters Tuesday, where residents found sanctuary from the fires.

Tuesday evening, county officials said about 3,850 people were housed in shelters, but they expected that number to rise from several recent fire-related evacuations. The shelters have a combined capacity of more than 6,800 people, officials said.

Supervisor James Gore, whose north county district has been heavily impacted by the Tubbs and Pocket fires, visited multiple shelters Tuesday. In a late afternoon interview at the Finley Community Center on West College Avenue in Santa Rosa, Gore said he was “amazingly impressed” by the deployment of resources and how residents were coping.

One of Gore’s starkest observations extended beyond supplies or food.

“You can tell that people are not in a position where they can even wrap their heads around what is going on or how their life is going to be,” he said. “A lot of the conversations are just wanting more information.”

The Finley center had registered 250 people by late afternoon, according to shelter manager Roy Pitts of the American Red Cross. He did not know the maximum capacity, but said there was room for more.

Among those sheltered there were James and Denise Cannam, a couple who for the last several weeks had stayed at a Motel 6 on Cleveland Avenue in Santa Rosa.

Sitting in a courtyard at the center with their 6-year-old American Staffordshire Terrier, Grace, by their side, the Cannams described a frenzied evacuation from their motel room around 2:45 a.m. Monday. Denise Cannam, 59, said she awoke to the flashing lights and “blaring screeching” of a fire alarm, apparently triggered by heavy smoke from flames approaching Santa Rosa.

“I had a heart attack a year ago, and I thought I was going to have another one,” she recalled. “It scared the hell out of me.”

Her husband, 61, was in such a hurry to evacuate that he broke his glasses - already glued together after a previous break - as he pulled on his shirt. James Cannam said he left the motel room in his underwear, carrying only his T-shirt, pants, socks and shoes.

The couple, who formerly lived in Cloverdale, said they aren’t sure where they’ll go if they can’t return to the motel. Their truck isn’t working and family members either live out of state or haven’t been in touch, they said.

“We’ll be along with the rest of the Santa Rosa homeless, I guess,” said Denise Cannam fighting tears. “It sucks.” ?The Cannams were not alone in their desperate escape.

Francisco Ramos and his wife, Maria, drove the streets Monday disoriented and bewildered after authorities ordered them to evacuate the room they rent in a Piner Road home. With no family in the area and uncomfortable spending the night at a shelter, they waited until night and sneaked back into the home, whose owners had evacuated.

The home escaped the blaze but there was no power or cellphone service. Still, the couple chose to remain.

“All we have is that room,” said Maria Ramos, 55, visiting the emergency shelter at Elsie Allen High School, where they stopped to get a warm meal and charge their cellphones before heading back.

Maria Ramos admitted she was nervous the home could catch fire while they slept.

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