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Ten Stories of Evacuees from the North Bay Fires

As Sonoma County burned, thousands of displaced residents banded together to comfort, grieve—and wait.

SLIDESHOW

The gymnasium at Analy High School in Sebastopol was transformed into a sea of temporary beds in the wake of the fires.

(1 of 11)

Pierre and Winter Wallace

(2 of 11)

Juliana and Bob Hoewing

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Yessica Romero-Ramirez and Genaro Ramirez

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Pegge Bastress

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Megan Sweetman

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Alan Sussex

(7 of 11)

Joni Severson

(8 of 11)

Nat Huggins

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Tory

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Ari Herman

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This is one of many stories about the North Bay fires published in the December issue of San Francisco. To read the rest, click here.

As mom to a 15-month-old daughter, photojournalist Talia Herman is used to waking up at all hours of the night. But on October 9, she awakened not to crying but to the overpowering smell of smoke. Herman immediately checked Facebook and Twitter and found out that four separate fires were spreading across Sonoma County, the closest of which was just seven miles from her Bloomfield home. “The moon was red, and there was ash in the yard,” she recalls. Herman sprang into action: She loaded the baby bag into the car and readied herself for the evacuation order. But it never came.

Instead, Herman hunkered down and waited out the worst of the chaos. Within days, though, she was eager to get back to work. So for the better part of the next week, she traveled to evacuation centers around Sonoma County, documenting a community responding to crisis. And as she visited shelters at Chanslor Ranch, the Sonoma Raceway, and her alma mater, Analy High in Sebastopol, Herman witnessed an overflowing of generosity—so much so, she says, that volunteers and goods were being turned away. “It is a small community in many ways,” Herman says. “If you spend any amount of time here, you know people who lost their homes.”

Just five minutes after showing up at Chanslor Ranch, Herman bumped into her brother, Ari, who was dropping off donated supplies. He wasn’t unique in the days that followed the fires. Neighbors offered one another shelter. People from throughout the Bay Area brought food and supplies. And many thousands of people around the country donated millions of dollars. In the wake of devastation, Sonomans refused to let their spirits, like so many of their possessions lost in the flames, turn to ash. In the slideshow above, a collection of those Herman encountered in the aftermath of the blaze.

Pierre and Winter Wallace
Wallace, a Sonoma Raceway security guard, pulled 14-hour days during the fires, directing the flow of goods and evacuees while also offering emotional support to those who’d lost everything. “I tried to hold it in because I wasn’t the one going through it,” says Wallace (shown with his 11-month old daughter, Winter). “I was like, ‘Let me just help this person.’” Although his own home was safe, Wallace camped with the evacuees in a field adjacent to the raceway. “I just felt like I needed to be there,” he says. While most of the evacuees have since returned home, Wallace says the raceway was so inundated with support that leftover donations still fill five of its garages.

Juliana and Bob Hoewing
When the Hoewings awoke at 3 a.m. to the sight of nearby houses burning, they fled their Hidden Acres home, leaving everything behind. “I didn’t even take my wedding ring or anything,” Juliana says. Three days later, they returned to load essentials into the teardrop trailer they normally use for camping. “You know, you really don’t need much when you start thinking about it,” she says. After hunkering down at the Sonoma Raceway for the rest of the week, the couple returned to an eerie sight: Their home had emerged unscathed, but the fire had destroyed four houses across the road.

Yessica Romero-Ramirez and Genaro Ramirez
Romero-Ramirez woke her husband at midnight because she couldn’t sleep. “I’ll never forget how intense and strong it smelled,” she says. A few hours later, a neighbor called and told them to get out. They rounded up clothes, important papers, and Romero-Ramirez’s Bible—her most important possession, she says—and evacuated from their Santa Rosa home to Analy High School, where they stayed for four days with Romero-Ramirez’s parents, who also evacuated.

Pegge Bastress
When the evacuation order came for the Sonoma neighborhood where Bastress, her two daughters, and their dog, Cora, live, Bastress was all set to go. She’d been planning a camping trip for one of the girls’ birthdays, so they were already packed and ready. Bastress and Cora were among the first evacuees to arrive at Chanslor Ranch, where Bastress helped sort donated goods. She stayed there five nights before returning home.

Megan Sweetman
“It was like something from a movie,” Sweetman says, describing how she and her family fled for San Francisco to get as far away as possible from the Rohnert Park trailer campground where they live. Sweetman and her boyfriend, Sid, loaded her two-year-old son, Connor, and four-year-old daughter, Kylie, into their car and raced south. They hardly had any gas when they left, and the closest station had nearly run out. As they squeezed the last few drops of premium into their tank, they saw families alongside them who had just watched their homes burn down. They returned the next day to collect their trailer so they wouldn’t have to stay in a hotel. Now Sweetman and her family are back home, and she’s returned to work at Franchettis’, a Santa Rosa pizzeria that has fed hundreds of evacuees. Sweetman considers herself among the lucky ones: Living in a mobile home meant she was able to take her most valuable possessions with her.

Alan Sussex
Sussex is no stranger to disaster. Years ago, he lost everything in a house fire while living in North Hollywood. This time, he managed to avoid that fate: He quickly loaded his car with valuables—“ financial papers, clothes, essentials,” he says. “I didn’t take any pictures or anything.” By the second afternoon after the fires broke out, he was ready to evacuate from his Oakmont Village home. “I saw this humongous fire coming, billowing smoke clouds,” he says. In the end, his home made it through, smoky but still standing. The thing he was most relieved to find intact? The birdhouses in his front yard.

Joni Severson
Severson knew she needed to evacuate, but as a severe agoraphobe, she was paralyzed by fear and unable to leave her home. Finally, her caregiver arrived to drive her to the Sonoma Raceway, out of harm’s way. Even there, however, Severson struggled to interact with others, instead relying on her friend for meals and information. But midway through her stay, a chance encounter with a distraught stranger sparked something inside her. “I’m helping this person who’s falling apart in front of me, and I felt myself coming alive,” Severson says. As she supported the woman over the next few days, she made a choice: “I thought, I need to stop this and be a part of the community.”

Nat Huggins
Huggins opened the front door of his Glen Ellen home to a sickening sight: a hazy, orange sky choked by smoke. He describes feeling catatonic the next few hours, before packing up and evacuating to the Sonoma Raceway in an RV he borrowed from his sister. He spent the next several days with “a knot in my stomach that not even a six-pack could cure.” He passed the time by playing his guitar—the only possession he’d brought with him, aside from some clothes. “It brought me a little bit of comfort,” Huggins says. “But I unfortunately played ‘Free Fallin’,’ and started breaking into tears. Here I am sitting in the RV, not knowing if this is going to be my new home. All my worldly possessions are on my back.”

Tory
Tory (who declined to give his last name) is a seasonal worker from Oklahoma City who fled as the Tubbs fire broke out near a marijuana farm where he was working. He says the farm’s owner shut the operation down as the fire closed in on it and sent the workers away. Tory didn’t have time to pack up, so he arrived at the Sonoma Raceway with only what he had on him: about an eighth of an ounce of marijuana in a sandwich baggie.

Ari Herman
Herman had been staying with his sister, Talia, when he woke up to the smell of smoke. He immediately jumped into action. Although the Hermans’ home wasn’t inside the evacuation zone, he drove his truck through Sonoma with water, camping supplies, and spare gasoline to give to neighbors fleeing their homes. Now that the focus has turned to rebuilding, Herman says he worries how low-income residents will fare. “I think this place is going to go into a depression,” he says.

 

Originally published in the December issue of San Francisco

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