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West Sonoma County evacuees returned to darkness and cold homes thanks to PG&E

RIO NIDO - Lorena Pritchard, 68, slowly walked up the south end of the Canyon One Road loop in Rio Nido Tuesday afternoon, carrying a partially filled plastic pitcher of cat food.

The tall redwoods, providing a canopy of broad leaves, barely let any sunlight into the quiet west county community, as the retired nursing assistant went from one house to another, filling pet bowls for neighbors forced to leave their homes over the weekend in case the Kincade fire jumps Highway 101 and takes aim at the Russian River towns.

Undaunted, Pritchard stayed.

“Some of us refused to leave,” she said. “I'm here for the duration. I've been here through floods and wildfires. I got a sprinkler on the roof and I hosed down everything.”

On Monday, Sonoma County Sheriff Mark Essick lifted the mandatory evacuation order affecting more than 30,000 west county residents, including those living near the Pacific Ocean from Jenner to Bodega Bay and Guerneville, Occidental, Sebastopol, Rio Nido, Monte Rio and most of Forestville.

Another 2,400 people living in parts of the Dry Creek Valley were allowed to return Tuesday.

However, the excitement faded for many when they were greeted by frosty air inside their homes. Residents without generators to provide backup power, propane stoves and water heaters or wood-burning stoves returned to communities still without electricity to keep their houses warm and food cold. They doubled up blankets and are essentially camping in their homes. With the forecast cold snap, they are preparing for overnight temperatures dropping into the low 30s the rest of the week.

Pritchard is one relying on the kindness of neighbors to allow her in for a bath or a cup of hot tea. Another option for her and area residents to get a break from the cold is the temporary warming center at the Guerneville Veterans Memorial Hall that will be open from 8 a.m. to 8 p.m. until Saturday. The center will be stocked with blankets and coffee, and people can charge their phones and other electronic devices.

In Guerneville, Abraham Santiago, a landscaper and janitor at the local Safeway, spent part of the afternoon washing his white Ford F-150 in front of his rented home on Sycamore Court, an area prone to flooding.

Santiago, 40, who lives with a friend in the one-bedroom apartment, said he hasn't worked since Friday. Because of the evacuation, Safeway has been closed since Saturday.

Santiago, who has lived in Guerneville for 10 years, left Saturday but returned Monday. That first night back, he used a propane tank to cook food and bundled up in blankets to stay warm, he said, speaking in Spanish.

“It gets cold from 6 p.m. on, but I have two wool blankets,” he said. “It's difficult when you don't have electricity. It's used for everything, to cook, to heat water, to take showers.”

Minutes before 1 p.m. Tuesday in Monte Rio, Steve Marek, 74, stopped by Bartlett's Market on Main Street for supplies. Marek, who uses a cane to walk, slowly pushed a metal shopping cart in the canned foods section of the market.

“I like the cans with the pull-up tops,” he said. “They're easier to open.”

Marek, who lives in a mobile home park on Sylvan Way, lived in San Francisco's upper Haight Street neighborhood before he moved to the west county nine years ago. His mobile home has a propane furnace for heat, but he can't use it because its thermostat requires electricity.

“It was 36 degrees on the deck this morning, but the house got down to 54,” he said. “I slept in my clothes last night. I'm a little too old for that.”

In Monte Rio, on the north side of the Russian River, John Baumann visited with neighbors to discuss the latest news about the Kincade fire. Since the power went out a few days ago, Baumann has been sleeping in his camper parked in front of his home on Beech Avenue and Breen Court.

The camper is equipped with propane for cooking, 75 gallons of water, three solar panels and four 6-volt batteries. He has a fireplace in the house, too, but he's fearful of releasing embers during heavy winds.

“The house is too cold, I don't want to burn anything in the fireplace,” he said. “Anything can come out of that fireplace.”

Baumann said he feared fierce winds would push the Kincade fire over Highway 101, just as they did with the Tubbs fire two years ago.

“If it hops over the 101 freeway, the fire would come right through here,” Baumann said. “If that happens, I'm out of here. … I got everything I need. All I have to do is start that thing and go,” he said, pointing to the camper.

Overall, the Kincade fire has displaced 190,000 local residents, who were forced from their homes by fire and smoke during the largest evacuation in Sonoma County history. People scattered in all directions, seeking shelter wherever they could find it.

Some ended up in evacuation shelters, the homes of friends and family or motels and hotels. Others took refuge in the parking lot of the Walmart in Rohnert Park.

A small, makeshift city of RVs and trailers lined the outskirts of the parking lot Tuesday. Mark Healy and his girlfriend, Tammy, who waited until the last minute to leave their southeast Windsor home, were there.

The couple left when Windsor's air was fouled by dense smoke. Hunkering down had become a ludicrous notion.

Their neighborhood, by Faught and East Shiloh roads, is near the southernmost edge of the Kincade fire. Once local shelters reached capacity and space to stow RVs and trailers was scarce, the couple took shelter wherever they could find it.

“It's forced camping, I guess you could call it,” he said.

Healy's shoulders sank as the generator powering the trailer went empty, choking to a quiet stop. “I'm hoping all this will end soon. It's stressful.”

Almost three days later, the couple is still living hour to hour. Healy, a painter, said work has come to a standstill. His girlfriend can't work because of a disability, which means money is tight until they can return to their house, which they hope is still standing.

A few rows down, Gabe Abramson of Windsor, a nature enthusiast and tech worker for a civil engineering firm, is breaking in a new trailer he bought after hearing enough horror stories from friends who lost their homes during the 2017 Tubbs fire, and others who said they camped their way through it.

Walmart was a last resort for Abramson and his father, who was staying in a pop-up trailer next to him. They had hoped to find space at an area campground, but those spots went faster than spaces in shelters, which began opening Monday.

“I'm fine with staying here,” Abramson said. “These guys aren't giving us any problems, but I'd definitely like to be in a much more glamorous place.”

Staff Writer Nashelly Chavez contributed to this story. You can reach Staff Writer Martin Espinoza at 707-521-5213 or martin.espinoza@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @pressreno. You can reach Staff Writer Yousef Baig at 707-521-5390 or yousef.baig@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @YousefBaig.

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