Our County was turned on its head last week, once again. In what was the largest evacuation in Sonoma County history, nearly 200,000 Sonoma County residents were ordered to leave their homes. The Kincade Fire grew to more than 77,000 acres, destroyed 349 structures, including 165 residences as I write this, and threatened entire cities. And, to compound it, more residents than not lost electricity, gas, heat and/or water for extended periods all across the County.
Firefighters lined Highway 101, putting their own bodies in the way, to prevent it from crossing the freeway and roaring into the West County. As Chief Mark Heine stated at an emergency Board of Supervisors meeting, the effort to contain this fire was “nothing short of heroic.”
Understandably many of us are exhausted, especially our first responders who held the line against the largest fire in California this year. They made sure hundreds of thousands of people evacuated safely, without incident and amazingly, without loss of life. Thousands of our second responders were in all of our Emergency Operations Centers and evacuation shelters, including many county and city workers who were conscripted when their own families were facing danger. All were aided by mutual aid reinforcements from other counties and states, including engine companies, law enforcement personnel and local government and emergency staff.
Shelters for evacuees were set up in Santa Rosa, Petaluma, and Sonoma, as well as the counties of Marin, Napa, San Francisco, Alameda, and Contra Costa. Within these facilities, families piled on top of army-green cots and wrapped themselves in Red Cross blankets against the cold. Showers were available on rotation. Meals were served en-masse and on a carefully timed schedule.
Yet, all of this was for the lucky ones who arrived early enough to find space within these sanctuaries. For many more, the shelters could not take them in so they hunkered down in cars, tents or RVs outside.
Quite simply, there were hundreds of thousands in need. Yet, it seemed for every evacuee, there was another Sonoma County resident eager and willing to step up and be of service.
I continue to hear stories about people who took time out of their usual jobs, away from their families, and apart from their own reality of the crisis to help others. I spoke to city and county employees who worked around the clock to staff the shelters, all while continuing their daily essential functions. I spoke to volunteers who spent hours performing janitorial duties for evacuees before returning to their own cold, dark homes in the outage areas. I also spoke to many families who fled their homes and were left wondering if they would have a home to return to, but still managed to thank the evacuation center organizers for a job well done.
For all of these people, I am grateful. All of the small acts — opening one’s home to evacuees, cooking meals for first responders, finding a way to make an evacuated child smile — they rippled out and made a significant and substantial difference during this emergency.
This is what is special about our County: when an emergency strikes, we come together, give what we can and ask what more we can do. It’s unfortunate that we’ve had to demonstrate this time and time again as fires and floods continue to occur. However, our community is resilient and compassionate.
I encourage you to keep this spirit of generosity alive. As we learned in 2017, putting out the flames is only the first hurdle. Many residents are now without a home or business and they are at the beginning of a long journey to make insurance claims and decide whether to rebuild. They will continue to need the support of our community to go on.
Should you be interested in helping, there are several ways you can get involved. Please support our local businesses, restaurants and retail shops for your holiday gift-giving and eating out. Continue to purchase gift cards for food and gasoline and donate them to our community organizations for distribution to the hundreds of families who lost wages.
The greatest need will be financial. Organizations are setting up relief funds for those who suffered the loss of wages, homes, groceries or other financial burdens. I encourage you to continue giving what you can and supporting where you see a need. For many, the end of this fire is just the beginning — and I couldn’t be more grateful to have you with us as we continue the work of recovery.