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Wildfire threat empties Guerneville amid peak summer season, delivering another blow

James Popiwny was up until 5 a.m. Wednesday after his Rio Nido home, along with much of northwest Sonoma County, fell under mandatory evacuation orders due to the raging fire in the hills north of the Russian River.

The need to leave struck Popiwny, who does property management and construction work along the river, as surreal. The 41-year-old Rochester, New York, native moved to California in 2012 and lost his former Guerneville home in the 2019 floods, which temporarily cut off the river town of about 5,000 from the rest of the world.

He’d just moved into his Rio Nido home on Canyon 2 Road last week, and now he was preparing to again live out of his vehicle due to the latest disaster to befall west county.

“It’s just like one thing after a freaking ’nother,” said Popiwny, standing outside of his packed Toyota RAV4, savoring a slow-burning Marlboro cigarette and a bottle of orange juice.

Many in Guerneville, including those forced to leave town because of the Walbridge fire, voiced similar sentiments about their community, which has been battered repeatedly by calamity.

After last year’s floods, Guerneville and much of west Sonoma County evacuated due to the Kincade fire, when some forecasts envisioned the possibility of the northeast Sonoma County blaze jumping Highway 101 and the Russian River and making a westward run all the way to the coast.

Now, the Walbridge fire, first dubbed the 13-4 fire by firefighters who spotted it earlier this week, is much closer than Kincade ever came. Evacuation warnings Wednesday crept further east and south toward Forestville and Windsor.

Guerneville, until late Wednesday at least, remained the largest single community under an evacuation order. The fallout on Main Street was evident even early in the day, when sidewalks and storefronts were empty of people, save for the occasional remaining resident, firefighting and law enforcement authorities and patrons of the few businesses to keep their doors open.

Further east, closer to the fire’s expected trajectory, Chris Rowe watched heavier waves of ash fall while shepherding the last few guests out of Schoolhouse Canyon Campground, which his family has owned since the 1960s. Rowe made sure he and his visitors at the 30-site campground were ready to go Tuesday night and planned to evacuate Wednesday.

“If I have to come and rattle your tent in the middle of the night, be ready to go,” Rowe said of his message to campers.

Two of the last to leave Schoolyard Canyon were a couple from San Francisco who’d traveled north Monday and expected to stay until Friday and now were on the hunt for lodgings in a safer part of Northern California. The campground had been booked solid for the upcoming weekend, Rowe said.

Businesses in and around Guerneville, which hums during the hot months as visitors flock to the Russian River to cool off and relax, were likely to take another blow, officials acknowledged.

Karin Moss, the executive director of the Russian River Chamber of Commerce, recently fielded a call from a man in Menlo Park wanting to know if he could visit an AirBnB this weekend. She found herself in the unusual position of advising a potential tourist against visiting.

“If it were me, I wouldn’t plan on it,” said Moss, who evacuated to a Rohnert Park hotel room with her dog, Murphy. “Even if the town is open again, there’s going to be smoke in the air and general malaise.”

Businesses, especially hotels and restaurants, were showing new signs of life amid the COVID-19 pandemic, Moss said. Recovery from the "dire circumstance“ of the fire will take even more coordination among local officials and merchants, she said.

“Suffice to say, my work is cut out for me,” Moss said. “It’s not like these are big flag hotels that can go to a corporate office for support.”

The tourist trade was already hobbled by the COVID-19 pandemic, but that was easier to manage than the sudden fire threat, said Michael Preaseau, who manages the Woods Cottages and Cabins on Fourth Street in Guerneville. He estimated that Tuesday’s cancellations alone would cost his hotel business nearly $3,000, with more likely to come as the fire raged on.

“The phone’s ringing off the hook,” Preaseau said, “but I’m too busy. I’m trying to evacuate.”

Some residents resigned themselves to sticking it out, including longtime Guerneville resident Wendell Joost, who walked with his 13-month-old Newfoundland, Jupiter, on Wednesday morning as if were any other day — despite the billowing smoke to the north and east.

“I’ll leave when the door burns off,” Joost said.

You can reach Staff Writer Will Schmitt at 707-521-5207 or will.schmitt@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @wsreports.

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