Fire refugees flood Sonoma County beaches

Fire refugees receive breakfast on Tuesday, Oct. 10, 2017 compliments of Bodega Harbor. (JAMES MACMILLAN)


Fleeing Santa Rosa fires early Monday morning, James MacMillan and his wife loaded their two daughters, two dogs, a cat and “as much as we could” into their car and headed for Doran Regional Park where MacMillan is the supervising park ranger for the coastal division of Sonoma County Regional Parks.

When they arrived at 5 a.m., the Bodega Bay area already was packed with refugees from the fires and “extremely chaotic,” MacMillan said.

Since then MacMillan has been doing triage, trying to help people while steering them to more suitable long-term shelters and out of Doran, where sharp, cold winds swept across the dunes Wednesday evening.

“People have been trying to seek refuge here, and we want to care for them until they can find shelter elsewhere,” said MacMillan, whose own family has returned home safely. “But this is not a long-term place for people to be. People need to be in a better shelter that can provide better services for them.”

The flight of refugees to the coast came as a shock to Patty Ginochio, a longtime community volunteer. Awakened by predawn, fire-related public safety announcements, she observed “solid headlights coming up to the beaches” by 2 and 3 a.m. Monday.

Streams of vehicles filled with people were parking in turnouts by Portuguese and Schoolhouse beaches, some people sleeping right on the asphalt despite extremely cold temperatures. By sun-up, it was clear something needed to be done to help these people, who needed food and shelter. Many had little more than their pajamas.

“These people were freezing out there,” she said. “The emotion is beyond words.”

But there are no evacuation shelters on the coast, nor social service agencies to help, so community volunteers pitched in instead. Ginochio, whose family restaurant employs mostly inland residents, wasn’t able to open Monday anyway because most of the staff was missing. So she opened her doors to the cold and hungry.

Soon local citizens had improvised shelters at the Bodega Bay Grange, where 66 people slept Wednesday night, and at Bodega Bay Church, which had about 40, in addition to those staying at Doran Beach.

Ginochio, part of the local Community Emergency Response Team, used the 50 cots from a Red Cross trailer the team purchased with donated funds three years ago. Eighty more were purchased to meet some of the need.

“We had 500 people come into the shelter on Monday alone,” Ginochio said.

The nonprofit Ceres Project in Sebastopol and Bluewater Bistro at Bodega Harbour have provided hundreds of meals each day. Truckloads of donations — food, clothing, diapers, blankets, firewood — have been delivered from as far away as Sacramento.

Local doctors also have come in to examine people with medical needs and help acquire necessary medications, she said.

“Everything I see is human kindness at its best,” said Amber Stark, one of the recipients, mentioning “grandmas’ recipes and sweet comfort things.” Stark fled Napa with her three children who have asthma and has been joined by her husband and brother.

Many of the people who fled to Doran chose the coast to get away from the smoke. That’s why Mirian Martinez and her family ended at Doran after a two-day flight from their Larkfield apartments. Her husband has asthma, as well.

But the jury-rigged system lacks the professional expertise and organizational resources that can help link evacuees with the array of help they need. The current model, with a volunteers scrambling amid chaos, is just not sustainable either, despite widespread community support, Ginochio said.

In addition, the free campsites offered to evacuees must be vacated by Friday, when every spot in the campground has been reserved by travelers eager to enjoy the beauties of the Sonoma Coast.

But efforts to persuade some of those who’ve sought refuge in Bodega Bay to move to one of more than two dozen official shelters operated by Red Cross and government personnel have met with some resistance.

Warren, Ginochio and others believe a significant number of people who fled to the coast, many of them Spanish-speaking, may be undocumented and, thus, are fearful of official shelters. Some have been reluctant even to give their names when checking into a shelter, Ginochio said.

“We think some of them are concerned about immigration issues,” Warren said.

Sonoma County Sheriff Rob Giordano and other county officials, as well as Red Cross representatives, have repeatedly issued assurances that all are welcome in the shelters and will not be asked to show documentation.

But there is palpable fear.

“These people are pretty shell-shocked to begin with,” said another volunteer, Phil Warren.

There has been some reduction in the numbers. At Doran Beach, about 140 people sheltering in tents and vehicles earlier was down to about 75, as families regrouped and found alternatives, according to estimates by MacMillan and Warren.

But those coordinating the emergency situation worry help won’t reach some who need it.

“We don’t have resources to maintain this many people in Bodega Bay,” Ginochio said.