SANTA ROSA, California—A toxic smog hangs in the air in northern California as firefighters work to contain multiple wildfires that have killed at least 41 people and destroyed more than 5,000 buildings and homes.
Emergency shelters throughout the region are emptying out as authorities lift evacuation orders, and people who are lucky enough to still have homes return to them.
Mark Whitman of the Coffey Park neighborhood in Santa Rosa is among the lucky ones. His home is one of six in a row that narrowly escaped the inferno, while across the street, at the end of his cul de sac, and stretching out for dozens of city blocks, his neighbors’ homes burned down to their foundations.
“It’s apocalyptic,” Whitman said Monday evening, surveying the charred landscape of incinerated houses, cars, and yards. “We’re having survivors’ guilt here. We’ve got six houses that are virtually isolated.”
Increasing his sense of isolation and confusion, police stationed at roadblocks around the perimeter of the neighborhood and have been keeping him and the rest of the homeowners on his street from getting to their properties.
They’ve had to sneak in or drive around to find checkpoints with sympathetic guards, Whitman said.
“The Santa Rosa police have been less than helpful,” said Whitman. “I get it,” he said. “They’re probably working 18-hour shifts.”
Whitman, 67, was out of town when the fire hit. He credits the quick action of his neighbor Wayne Sims with saving his place. Rather than evacuate, Sims used a garden hose to wet down rooftops and then ran through his neighbors’ backyards—away from the intense heat emanating from across the street where houses were already aflame—to look for hot spots.
When Cal Fire crews arrived, Sims borrowed one of their hoses, and used it to blast a redwood tree six doors down, where embers had begun smoldering.
Sims cursed and and yelled at the fire, he told an NBC affiliate station. “I was fighting the fire. I understand those terms now.”
The homeowners recently learned of the death of a neighbor a few blocks over. Authorities had found her car still in the driveway with the back door open. Whitman speculated that she was on her way out when she went back to look for her dog.
Across the street from Whitman’s house an unburned silver Toyota pickup sat in the driveway of a home that burned to ashes. The owners escaped, but they can’t come get the truck. “The keys were in the house,” Whitman said.
There have been rumors about “gold passes” that would get him and his neighbors through the checkpoints. A pair of friendlier cops from another district came by and distributed some, he said. But his neighbor’s was confiscated when he tried to return home after going out to get groceries.
When Whitman tried to get officers to assure him that he would be allowed back in, they could only say: “We’re going to be at the checkpoint at Hopper and Barnes.” He understood they were telling him to come to their checkpoint.
“OK, but what happens when there’s a shift change?” Whitman said.
The residents of Randon Way have had to resort to getting reporters—who have free reign—to bring them supplies like propane and milk.
“They’re making us jump through all kinds of hoops,” Whitman said. “I just want to get on with my life. I don’t think that’s too much to ask.”
A sense of unease with police and authority in general has also permeated some of the shelters. Volunteers say undocumented immigrant families have been avoiding shelters, out of fear of being deported.
Some volunteers at Bayer Farm, a popular local park and community garden center, said they knew of families who had camped at Bodega Bay but had scattered when a sheriff’s deputy came by to offer help.
“It’s a site we envisioned 10 years ago as an urban farm. After the fire, it’s become a hub for health—because many undocumented folks don’t feel safe at the shelters,” said Craig Anderson, CEO of LandPaths, a local nonprofit organizing the garden’s meals and community events.
To try and serve these families, volunteers like Florentina Becerra have been at the gardens all week cooking hot meals, making pozole, pressing tortillas by hand, hoping to reach families who might not feel comfortable going elsewhere.
Becerra and her husband lost their home at Coffey Park, escaping with only a box of papers, their kids’ graduation photos and a picture of the Virgin Mary from the hallway. Their homeowners insurance is paying for their hotel room while they figure out what to do next.
“I feel very sad,” Florentina Becerra said, in Spanish, “but I’m grateful we were able to get out with our lives.”
Studies of previous wildfires that spread to homes and neighborhoods have shown that the ash and soot contained PCBs linked to cancer, as well as heavy metals like arsenic, chromium, and cadmium. To prevent exposure, public health officials are urging people to wear masks, particularly N95 masks which block out 95 percent of the small particles that can make their way into the bloodstream through the lungs. But masks that fit children and babies have become a scarcity.
Families were stopping by the gardens, kids reading books, and mothers picking up tiny face masks for their kids.
Adult masks are too big to fit around childrens’ small faces, so another group of volunteers had spent Sunday night making 300 of them.
Marcos Ramirez, 39, of Santa Rosa, had figured out how to cut a slit in each side, glue or sew it back together, and re-attach the bands that hold it in place. He made a Facebook video showing how to do it that had garnered 25,000 views after one day.
He helped Tiffany O’Connell who had just returned from a week in Berkeley with her children find a mask that would fit her 1-year-old baby.
“I’ve been keeping them inside with the air filters on, but I can’t do that forever,” O’Connell said. She had seen some masks for kids online selling for $30 apiece.
Ramirez said that after a week of helping people put out fires on their properties, dousing trees whose cores were still smoldering, bringing supplies to shelters, he and everyone he knows is exhausted. But the idea of making and distributing the masks had energized him. Earlier he had dropped some masks and water off at a day labor center, where many immigrants gather to wait for jobs.
“They can’t take much with them,” he said, “they have to be ready to hop in cars and work.”