The Evacuee Experience

'Surreal' reality of evacuating

Wind gusts blow dense streams of dry leaves across the quickly filling parking lot at the Petaluma Veterans Memorial Building. The location is one of six evacuation shelters available to some of the more than 180,000 evacuees from Santa Rosa, Geyserville, Healdsburg, Windsor, Sebastopol, and more locations extending all the way out to the California coastline.

Inside, dozens of cots with exhausted people and their belongings fill the room. The next hall over is filled with breakfast tables and the last of the morning’s diners. Organizers are staffing tables checking people in. More people arrive by the minute.

The volunteers are busy and kind. One volunteer at the shelter said it was getting to capacity but they weren’t turning people away. The city of Petaluma released a statement Sunday that the County of Sonoma has arranged for more shelters throughout the region.

The city is working with faith-based and non-profit partners to open additional shelters on an ongoing basis to accommodate the many in need. Volunteers or donations can go through Petaluma People Services Center to ensure that evacuees and first responders receive what they need in the most organized and sensitive way possible.

Evacuees’ emotions range from stressed to going-with-the-flow. April and Todd Axberg, both nurses at Kaiser Permante and Santa Rosa Memorial respectively, arrived Saturday night from Santa Rosa. They were camped out in their truck in the Petaluma Veterans Building parking lot with their dogs.

“I’m a vet and ironically it’s the first time I’ve used the Veterans facility,” says Todd Axberg. Their former Mark West Springs home burned down in 2017 and they lived in a trailer for seven months while rebuilding. They have been living in their new home for about a year now.

“We already knew generator life, so we were fine with the outages,” he adds. “But when the wind started picking up we were acutely attuned to it.”

For now, their home is safe, but their evacuation was mandatory. “We put a lot of work into the house but we don’t have a lot of connection there this time so it’s different from before,” says his wife, April Axberg, of leaving their home in the wake of fire danger.

The public safety power shutoff is planned to continue through Monday, Oct. 28. Approximately 4,000 customers have lost power, mostly on the west side of the city. Another similar wind event is expected to begin early Tuesday, Oct. 29 morning and could lead to even longer power outages.

Ana Paladi from Romania and Jarkko Hartikhainnen from Estonia are interns at the Michael David Winery in Cloverdale, “We arrived in August to work” says Hartikhainnen. “Right now we’re staying with friends from work on an air mattress on the floor. What can you do about it?”

They are two among many young interns who chase the wine harvests across the world, working in countries as far a flung as Chile, Brazil, California, and Australia.

“I was riding my bike to work at 4 a.m. in the dark and could see the fire on the horizon and the helicopters working hard, they were like bees in a field, it’s traumatic, but it was also beautiful,” Hartikhainnen says.

Ultimately, the mandatory evacuations in potential fire danger zones made things more orderly for law enforcement and for people leaving their homes according to some volunteers at the shelters.

“It’s not as hectic as last time, says Morena Carvalho, a volunteer at the Sonoma County fairgrounds shelter. “It’s much more calm.”

Uniformed Sonoma County probation officers were there to help with providing additional security but are not there to ask anyone questions “we don’t want to cause any more stress, we’re just here to help with security.” one officer said.

Margery Egge of Healdsburg describes the surreal evacuation process, “I couldn’t believe how peaceful it was, you just watch your neighbors leave one by one and say goodbye,” she says.

They too eventually left in their trailer and are now parked at the AMF Boulevard Lanes next to the Petaluma Veterans Building, which is near their daughter’s family.

Her Husband Ross Egge agreed, “We weren’t going to leave but once we got the order we left. We’re lucky we have the trailer. There’s no point in rushing back, if we stay here 4-5 days we’ll be alright.” he says.

List of Evacuation Shelters:

Showers: 24 Hour Fitness, located at 6 Petaluma Blvd North/Mill Building, is offering free showers at their facility through Friday, November 1st.

How to Volunteer and Donate Money: Volunteers and those who want to help with a donation can go through Petaluma People Services Center, which is coordinating volunteers and donations to assist with shelter and emergency response needs. To help, please send an email to [email protected], call 707-529-1201 or register in person at the Kenilworth Teen Center, 150 Fairgrounds Dr.

Limit Water Use:
Sonoma Water Agency water production facilities have been switched to emergency generator power. For this reason, we ask that all Petaluma residents, businesses, and visitors limit water use until further notice.