For Sonoma County’s deaf, the fires were a silent emergency
There were text messages, automated phone calls, sirens in the street. First responders with bullhorns urged the sleeping to get out and get out now. Neighbors banged on doors again and again.
While some of the hundreds displaced by flames that tore across Sonoma County in the wee hours of Oct. 9 felt the notification process was less than ideal, there was a community of some 500 deaf people for whom Oct. 9 was like every other night — silent.
Once they were finally alerted, often hours after their neighbors, they still struggled to comprehend what exactly was happening until hours later when they encountered hearing people and passed written notes back and forth.
It’s a problem, advocates said, that’s common in emergency situations everywhere.
“We’re the last to find out, and we’re the last to evacuate,” said Vance Deatherage, an advocate with Deaf Counseling Advocacy and Referral Agency, a global advocacy group based in San Leandro. He was dispatched to Santa Rosa to improve help for deaf evacuees, adding accessibility options such as signs and video phones to Sonoma County shelters, making them deaf-friendly. Told through interpreters, here are four stories of deaf survivors.
Fortuitous garbage day
In Coffey Park, Oct. 9 was garbage day.
It was about 2:30 in the morning and Destiny Castellanos, 35, felt something vibrate in the house.
“We felt garbage cans blowing over,” said her partner, Doug Fischer. “They were banging in the street. There was noise in the street. Something wasn’t right. Destiny felt something wasn’t right.”
She went to the window and the smoke flooded into the house. Fischer, 39, noticed cars leaving the neighborhood, neighbors fleeing. But they didn’t see the flames.
“We couldn’t speak with our neighbors,” Castellanos said. “Fortunately, our immediate neighbors knew we were deaf and they were gesturing to get out of there. They were flagging us to get out as soon as possible.”
They grabbed their two young daughters and son — all under 7 years old — piled into the family car, and left behind the rental home they’d lived in for almost nine years. That’s when they finally saw the flames. The embers. Unable to listen to the radio, they still had no knowledge of the fires’ magnitude.
“So we were just following our instincts and we decided just to get out of there, and to go to Doran Beach and to get to the coast,” Castellanos said. The next day, their home was gone.
Woken up by smoke
Robert Zunino, 72, and Diana Zunino, 73, both deaf, also lost their Coffey Park home in the blaze.
Diana Zunino woke just before 1:30 a.m. Oct. 9 to the smell of thick smoke inside the home they’d owned for 18 years.
“She woke me up and I was fast asleep,” Robert Zunino said. “She really had to shake me to get me awake, and she said ‘There’s something burning. There’s something burning.’ ”
They looked outside the window and saw three garbage cans blown over. Then, outside, they saw a stream of neighbors’ cars vacating the neighborhood.
“I started to pick up the garbage can on the other side of the street, and I noticed someone coming over,” he said. “He said, ‘Get out!’ ‘Get out!’ ”