Array of Santa Rosa businesses defied Kincade fire evacuation orders
Despite being located in mandatory evacuation zones, certain Santa Rosa businesses continued operating this week in defiance of public safety calls to clear the area because of Kincade fire risks.
They appear to be mostly small companies around the west side of the city that retained power during PG&E’s preemptive shut-off that continues. It also included a Safeway supermarket.
The concern was palpable enough that city officials sent 10 teams of two staffers each around the city on Tuesday to visit businesses and residences to remind them that they were in a mandatory evacuation zone and should leave.
Law enforcement officials said they were worried that defying the Sonoma County Sheriff’s evacuation order posed a public safety threat given that the winds around the Kincade fire easily could have changed direction and took aim at the city and posed problems for emergency crews responding to calls.
Sheriff Mark Essick said he was aware of businesses operating in evacuated areas, a misdemeanor that can result in an arrest, but he is not strictly enforcing the law.
“I’d say it is a matter of discretion,” the sheriff said. “We are not going in and arresting them and dragging them out by the heels.”
Santa Rosa Police Chief Ray Navarro said the evacuation orders were put in place because of lessons learned during the 2017 Tubbs fire.
Just as troubling were concerns of employees who worked at the open businesses as well as their family members who contacted The Press Democrat about the matter and asked for anonymity because of possible retaliation from their employers.
“I’m very worried as I’m losing out on money and it’s just another level of stress added and I want to do the right thing,” wrote one worker whose employer on the west side of the city encouraged employees to come into work if possible.
Elected officials said they were troubled by the actions of these companies that kept operating when they were supposed to close. “That’s the wrong message,” county Supervisor Shirlee Zane said.
City councilman Chris Rogers acknowledged the evacuations were a hardship on small businesses. “If you are a small business and shut down for a few days, I understand the desire to get open,” he said.
Yet, he also was adamant businesses did the wrong thing by defying evacuations.
“The reality is, businesses should not have been open in the evacuation zone. Period. The City shouldn’t have had to go door to door telling them to be closed, they should have been closed,” Rogers wrote in a Facebook post.
The issue started to emerge Monday night, Rogers said, and became a bigger problem by Tuesday, forcing the city to address it. The tipping point came when Omelette Express in Railroad Square announced on Facebook Tuesday at 4:16 a.m. that it would be open that day in an evacuation zone.
Don Taylor, owner of Omelette Express, said he opened Tuesday morning after seeing others nearby working, specifically the construction crew building the new AC Hotel by Marriott at Fifth and Davis streets.
“I thought they must have lifted the ban or something. But that’s when the city came down and said I had to close” Taylor said. “I was confused because the only angle I had on that was they didn’t seem to stop the hotel people.”