NorCal Fires: Efforts from Marin County Caroline cummings, Shannon Donelan, jocelyn & Jordan Overmyer

Evacuation Centers:

“It’s often said you see the best of humanity when the worst is happening. I wish you didn’t have to wait for the worst to happen, but you’re definitely seeing the best of everybody,” said Ryan Porter, a Santa Rosa resident and the Director of Operations at Epicenter, a sports and entertainment facility that was recently converted into a donation center.

In the wake of the devastating wildfires that swept over Northern California, many residents are left unsure of how to move forward following this tragedy.

Across the Bay Area, facilities have welcomed those affected by the fires. Evacuation centers have opened up in places such as the gymnasium of Terra Linda High School, the Marin County Civic Center and other locations in Petaluma, Santa Rosa and Sonoma.

Laine Hendricks, a public relations officer for the county of Marin, has been working in close collaboration with the Civic Center evacuation shelter.

“We opened it initially as an evacuation center, so that means it was just a temporary location to hang out and to wait out to see if the evacuation orders were going to be lifted,” Hendricks said. “We realized that is not going to happen. I mean, they are not going to be able to go home because the fires are still raging, so we turned this into a shelter.”

According to Hendricks, on the night of Monday Oct. 9, the shelter housed 475 people, with an additional 50 moved over to Terra Linda’s gym as the Civic Center Exhibit Hall filled to capacity.

The shelter provides the evacuees with three meals a day, a safe place to sleep, activities for the children and their families, showers and donations from the community such as clothing and shoes, according to Hendricks. She described the response from the community as tremendous.

“We didn’t even need to ask for donations. People just started showing up with clothing and cases of bottled water and food and all sorts of things. This is what happens often when there is a disaster,” Hendricks said.

Marketing and Communications Manager for Cultural Services Libby Garrison echoed the generosity shown by the community.

“The response from the community has been completely overwhelmingly heartening. This community has really rallied to come together in every possible way,” Garrison said. “I’m getting calls all day long from neighbors who live close by who want to come pick up families and take them home and let them shower and feed them and then bring them back.”

In addition, the Civic Center shelter offers separate rooms for evacuees that were able to leave with their cats and dogs. A missing persons’ board also hangs on the hallway, allowing people to try to connect with missing loved ones.

Garrison expressed her desire for the center to provide more than just basic necessities. The activities include zumba classes, morning meditations and music. The Bay Area Discovery Museum and San Rafael Public Library have brought activities to entertain the kids including art projects, a magician and a mobile library. The Marin Symphony also came to the Civic Center to perform.

“We want to not just house and feed them but entertain them and make sure that they’re getting fulfilled in all the culturally important ways,” Garrison said.

These types of activities are crucial in a time of tragedy, according to Garrison.

“A lot of the kids are really young and displaced from their homes and we just want to make them feel safe and happy and entertained and not scared,” Garrison said.

According to Hendricks, the Civic Center and Terra Linda High School have about 70 volunteers each day, helping with all the different services the shelter provides such as food preparation and distribution, clean up, checking people in and out of shelters, acting as case managers and helping with any medical needs. A large part of the staff comes from the County of Marin government due to their close proximity.

Some evacuees were given enough warning to collect their important belongings, but others had a much more rushed evacuation.

Laine Hendricks, a public relations officer for the county of Marin

Nineteen-year-old Gustavo Angel Vences’ parents picked him up right from his work in Sonoma to drive down to San Rafael for safety. All he had with him was his uniform.

“I felt like throwing up [driving away from home],” Vences said. “Honestly, I don’t even know how to describe it, but I was feeling really uncomfortable.”

Edgar Chaban, a 17-year-old from Santa Rosa, had about thirty minutes to gather his stuff. He took his wallet, IDs, phone, clothes and shoes.

Edgar Chaban, a 17-year-old from Santa Rosa

“It was Monday around two in the morning and my parents woke me up saying that we had to go. I had just gotten back from a soccer game so I didn’t really know what was going on,” Chaban said. “They said there was a fire so I went outside to look and I looked up at the sky and it was all orange.”

Two boys, 10-year-olds Alan and Erwin, are friends and neighbors in Sonoma. When the fire hit their town, Alan was woken up by his brother and had 30 minutes to grab personal items before his family evacuated.

“His mom said grab anything important and he grabbed his soccer shoes,” Erwin said.

Erwin and his brother were the first of his family to realize the situation, they alerted the rest of his family.

“I felt like it was time for school and then I went outside. Then I noticed there was smoke, fire, and everything was burned,” said Erwin.

While Vences said he is still feeling much of the same uncertainty as before, the support he has received from the Marin Center has helped a lot.

“Just knowing that the people from here, they’re great, that calms me down a little bit more,” Vences said.

Despite the less than ideal conditions, Chaban describes a sense of camaraderie within the shelter.

“It’s very friendly. People help each other out,” Chaban said. “They’re being compassionate for each other. And they know what everybody’s going through–that they don’t know if their house is still standing or not.”

Alan and Erwin discovered a bright side to staying at the Civic Center.

“We can do everything we want here. [At school] we can’t do nothing, we can’t play soccer whenever we want,” Alan said. “We can do more things like play cops and robbers. In school we have to do math and science.”

As the sun set below the horizon, Alan, Erwin and their friends laughed and played soccer.

Erwin describes his daily routine at the center as “sleep, eat and video games.”

Chaban felt that the uncertainty was the worst part and recognizes that his town has a long road ahead.

“You hope for the best for [evacuees], that their house is still standing, but you know that a lot from the news that you see are gone. You’re just wondering when you go back, what houses will be standing and what won’t be there no more and how Santa Rosa will get back on its feet,” Chaban said.

Vences and his family are among the many that still do not know if their house survived.

“Where I live is all the way up in the mountains and where the fire is occurring, so we don’t really know if it burned down or not. And we’re kind of scared to go all the way to Sonoma to check. We’re not gonna find out until everything calms down,” Vences said.

According to Erwin, this was the first time they have seen a fire burn outside of a campfire.

“That was my first time seeing fire destroying Sonoma, killing Sonoma,” Erwin said.

Both Alan and Erwin are uncertain of the status of their homes.

Alan and Erwin, residents of Sonoma

“If feels good being here with all my friends but it feels bad leaving our home. I miss it,” said Alan. “Going back if I see it burned down, I’ll be mad, worried and sad.”

Chaban described the wide range of emotions he experienced while evacuating.

“I always saw that people were in devastation of hurricanes and stuff, and I never would have thought it would happen to me until that day. I was just really sad and in disbelief and thinking how could this happen to us,” Chaban said. “I was just praying for the best―that our house wouldn’t burn down.”

Search and Rescue:

Amidst the white ash coating the remains of the once trailer park in Santa Rosa, seniors Nick Forbes and Kobe Pole looked for signs of bones.

“We had to wear big boots with steel bottoms, and steel toes so we didn’t step on nails, white Tyvek suits to keep the dust off because there are all sorts of chemicals in the ashes, gloves, hardhats, safety glasses,” said senior Kobe Pole.

On Friday, Oct. 13, Pole searched for hours through the remains of Journey’s End Mobile Home Park in Fountaingrove, Santa Rosa, alongside other members of Search and Rescue (SAR).

Friday was the first day SAR was called up to locate missing persons at the mobile park and a few other family homes nearby. At the mobile home park, bones were located.

“I was taken aback about how much was destroyed and how many people were displaced,” Pole said, “ It was kind of eerie to be in someone else’s house knowing that they hadn’t seen it yet and we’re still picking through it.”

According to Pole, it was strange to be able to recreate houses as they located certain items. Bedsprings suggested where the bedroom used to be. Ceramic plates, cups and bowls, common items left behind, pinpointed the kitchen.

“Everything was blackened and just ash covered, and it was desolate and destroyed,” Pole said.

Pole, who has been on SAR for four years, has done numerous searches and responded to many tragedies.

“We do a lot of body recoveries for the County of Marin as well as elsewhere so it’s not my first bodies. Depending on the circumstances, I don’t know anything about this person, I don’t know their history, I haven’t met their family before, I don’t actually know who they are. All I’m seeing is a fragment of their bone,” Pole said.

According to Pole, SAR first sends a drone up to make sure the area is safe. They then send dogs in and the human searches follow.

“Yesterday there was a lot of aluminum roofs that would melt in over the frame. So we would have to peel back the roof and then we would send the dog in another time. Then we would go in and look carefully,” Kobe said.

SAR was originally contacted around 4 a.m. on Sunday, Oct. 8 by Sonoma County Sheriff Office to help with evacuations. Due to complications, the SAR team was sent back to Marin, where they led the set-up for the evacuation center at the Civic Center.

“A lot of the Red Cross people and the Health and Humans Services people who run the shelters normally don’t have the same response time as we do. [SAR] can show up immediately],” Pole said.

Pole will most likely continue to go up to help the efforts of searching for missing people as the fires continue to burn.

Community Support:

As Garrison put it, fire doesn’t discriminate. Unfortunately, two Redwood faculty have been severely impacted by the fires, losing their homes. In an email sent out Thursday, Oct. 12 by Mary Jane Burke, Marin County Superintendent of Schools, over 1,000 school employees in Marin have been affected.

Redwood teacher Stephen Hart decided to step forward to help Redwood staff by creating a GoFundMe page, a site which allows people donate to a specific cause.

“As of Wednesday, Oct. 11, at least two of Redwood High School's staff members have lost their homes and possessions in the fires raging in Sonoma, Napa, and other counties up north. Several more fear being impacted as the fires continue to move closer to their homes,” Hart wrote on the donation page.

Hart said he created the web page because of people outside of the state who expressed interest in donating money.

“Obviously they couldn’t come to school and drop off money or it seemed kind of odd for them to send money or Venmo money to someone they didn’t know,” Hart said. “There were a lot of people who wanted to basically make the donation process easier, more efficient in a way that we could advertise it more on a mass scale.”

The GoFundMe’s call for support gained immediate traction and immense support from our community.

As of Monday Oct. 16, $65,660 has been donated by 576 people, shattering the original goal of $10,000.

“We’ve just been adjusting [the goal] as the donations have come in. We weren’t really sure how much to expect honestly. When you have multiple people who have lost their homes, any amount is going to help, but we certainly didn’t want to deter anyone from donating if they saw that the goal had been met,” Hart said. “There really is not a goal per se, in terms of how much Paulo and Ms. Tafoya could use in order to help rebuild what they had.”

Hart says he was not expecting the overwhelming amount of donations that occurred.

Volunteers at the San Rafael Civic Center

“We knew that there was a lot of potential help and support waiting from the community, but I don’t think any of us expected that much to come out of it,” Hart said.

This type of support is something special to the Redwood community, according to Hart.

“I think we’re very lucky in that we generally live in an area where people have the ability to help out in the capacity that they are,” Hart said. “It shows that Redwood has a great support network and that there’s really just some very caring people in our community, everything from teachers to students to former students.”

As for the reaction to this support, Hart said the faculty have been grateful but nothing can mask how overwhelmed they are by their situations.

“Mr. Mullery [head custodian] and Mr. Sondheim have been in touch and I know that they’re appreciative, but I also know that they have a lot on their plate right now,” Hart said.

Hart plans on ending the GoFundMe page some time in the near future.

“Donations have definitely slowed down. I think we’ve kind of reached basically everyone in our community as much as we can, and we really at this point want to make sure that this money makes it to our impacted employees,” Hart said. “We’re probably going to be withdrawing that money and distributing it very soon.”

With 1,100 shares on Facebook and donation up to $2,500, the support continues to flow in.

Jeff and Lori Runnfeldt, parents of junior Anna and freshman Alli, were in Mexico at the time the fires first started.

“When we woke up that Monday morning, we had a ton of texts and friends and family about the fires,” said Lori.

The Runnfeldt family has a house in Napa Valley, which luckily survived from the fire.

“We were just trying to get a handle on the scope of it and that everybody we knew up there was okay.” said Jeff. “And of course if we were at risk as well.”

Anna and Alli were at home during the strike of the fires.

“We wanted to make sure that our kids were okay and when we eventually read about it in the news. It made me even more worried because of all the devastation,” Lori said.

According to Jeff, he believes he found out about the Redwood support GoFundMe on Facebook, which the Runnfeldt family donated $1,000 too, one of highest seven donations made to the Redwood faculty.

“It seemed like the obvious thing to do considering all the challenges they were faces. We wanted to do what we could to help alleviate them in any way possible,” Jeff said.

Redwood’s leadership class also stepped in to help organize different forms to help support not only the staff affected but the entire community. Senior and ASB president Eamon Rogan has been helping lead these efforts.

“There's been a lot of support within the Redwood community helping people they know or even people they don’t know,” Rogan said. “It’s good because we are a community that has the resources to help people and it's great to see that everyone is feeling that we are going to help.”

Starting last week, Leadership organized boxes that were placed in every classroom, where donations of any sorts could be brought. By the end of the day on Thursday, the two outside the front office were already filled to the brim.

“Seeing that people are willing to donate things that aren’t just money to help, like clothes and toiletries, it's been crazy. That's what people need,” Rogan said.

The donated items will be collected and sorted through all donated items which will then be brought to local centers.

Donations made to the boxes put out by the Redwood Leadership class

Leadership also plans to start a fundraiser this week where they will be collecting money donations.

“We are going to be by the flagpole and CEA collecting money before school, during lunch and after school.” Rogan said. “There’s also going to be people going up to the cars and asking if they will donate.”

Within the Leadership class, they are creating gift baskets filled with donations and gift cards for the two staff members that lost their homes.

“We are trying to have it ready for when they come back so they will be welcomed back with these, in addition to the GoFundMe,” Rogan said.

According to Rogan, they are helping to publicize the GoFundMe that Hart set up by putting the link to it in the bios of the class Instagram pages.

“The GoFundMe has been incredible. You saw in the first two days it was incredible. I checked one hour and then two hours later it would be up thousands of dollars,” Rogan said.

Outside Redwood, Rogan has continued to see the unwavering support.

“There's been so many people in the community that has hosted families and helped that way. I know teachers that are hosting families and I know people that are hosting families or doing the ‘adopt-a-family’ thing,” said Rogan.

Other Redwood families are assisting evacuees in other ways as well. With shelters and evacuation centers declining further donations due lack of space, families have decided to take more direct action. Seniors Katie and Maddie Baker and their family decided to “foster” a family.

“They had nothing. They are positive their home was destroyed,” said senior Maddie Baker about the Napa family her family is supporting through buying them necessities.

The Baker family has been helping a family of three who lost everything in the fire.

“When they woke up they hadn’t gotten an evacuation notice, but when the dad woke up his whole window was orange with fire. So they left the house with nothing, only their PJs on,” Baker said.

The Baker’s met the family through the owner of TJ’s gym, and provided the evacuee family with clothes, Target gift cards, Visa gift cards, towels, toiletries and more.

“Our whole system worked really well and we organized everything in 48 hours. They thought it would take two weeks, but my mom wanted to do it in 48 hours because if we had waited any longer it would have been harder to help them immediately because they needed clothes right away,” Maddie Baker said.

Before the fires, players on the Corte Madera Football Club competed against the Santa Rosa United Club players’, both with the mindset to score. But as the fires enveloped the homes of Santa Rosa players, the two clubs banded together with one goal.

Cynthia Pillsbury and her colleague Smallhorn, both mothers of players on CMFC, stepped up to organize donations from families on the soccer club to help the Santa Rosa United Club.

Cynthia Pillsbury and her colleague

“We play Santa Rosa United, which has been gravely affected by the fires. In fact, over 40 homes have been destroyed of players we play against, so we decided let’s help our fellow soccer players. We all become one team when tragedy strikes,” Pillsbury said.

Their efforts were met with much compassion and generosity from the soccer club families. In a matter of days, over 50 bins and $7,000 were collected at Hall Middle school, the homebase for donations. The bins of clothing are being transported to a house in San Rafael where the affected families can collect essential items.

“I just knew that we could make a greater impact by getting our community together and we wanted our kids to do more than see us write a check. We wanted them to get involved and create a movement, work together, and for them to realize the kids we play on a soccer field, it could have been us,” Pillsbury said.

Pillsbury and all the families raised an additional $250 through a bake sale and plan on continuing holding events and fundraisers to further help the victims.

“I love that my kids are getting involved and they’re realizing they can make an impact. I feel like the whole community has come together. You know, in two short days a small community of soccer players and people they know have raised a lot of money that will go directly to these fire victims,” Pillsbury said. “At least they have new clothes to wear, and games to play and dolls to hold and soccer cleats and shin pads to play soccer with in the coming weeks.”

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