Forced to flee in the early morning darkness, many Sonoma County residents had only minutes to decide what to take. Many left with virtually nothing, except their animals, and began networking with others to find the community shelters and resources who would support evacuees with animals.
Finley Hall at the Santa Rosa Fairgrounds is filled with cots, and with evacuees from Santa Rosa’s northeast neighborhoods: from Montgomery Village, Bennett Valley, Montecito Heights, Fountaingrove, Riebli Road, Coffey Park. On Tuesday, the big hall was dimly lit, and staffed with volunteers from the community and Red Cross. They’re stationed to register people arrive in a steady stream at the door, and circulate constantly through the hall.
These volunteers, with their positive smiles and earnest attention, are extremely popular with the evacuees: they distribute kitty litter and kibble, crates and water bowls and clean up after accidents, which are bound to happen, considering the number of dogs, cats, rabbits and kittens, parrots and other pets, now sheltering here side by side. Despite the number of animals in close proximity, the hall is surprising quiet. The residents are shockingly well behaved. Golden retrievers, huskies and black labs lounge a foot or two from each other, leashed at their owner’s feet, while toy poodles and spaniels curl on Red Cross blankets. Cats recline in spacious cages.
Finley is one of the temporary shelters for residents who’ve fled their homes with their pets. Now, they’re waiting for news of what’s happening outside, unsure when they’ll go home, or whether they’ll find any home at all. The fire, set loose in the forest and blown into rural neighborhoods and down city streets, continues to be ruthlessly destructive.
For some here, their pets may be all they have left.
Fortunately, the Sonoma County community network that leaps into action when disaster strikes, is also providing aid and shelter to people with animals. The fairgrounds is one of several locations taking them in (a list of the centers that are available is posted on page D3). In addition to the smaller creatures, the fairgrounds is also providing stables for horses and other large animals. On Tuesday morning, trailers were still lining up at Gate 7 off Aston Avenue, looking for shelter. Many more had arrived the previous day.
With smoky haze hanging in the air, Katrina Ortiz, a volunteer from Petaluma Horse Rescue, was helping to tend to some of the 31 horses who’d arrived overnight from Cloverleaf Ranch. A number of them had burns and cuts, singed manes and other injuries.
Nearby aisles and stalls were busy with the sound and commotion of arriving large animals, many unaccustomed to the new surroundings. One resident who said she had come in from Bennett Valley, was trying to calm a nervous tan, one of the three horses she’d brought here, including a miniature and two full-sized horses. She had her two French bulldogs with her as well, rescue dogs.
The fire, she said, rolled up and over the ridge with stunning speed, a true nightmare, forcing them out. On the next aisle over, four inquisitive llamas peered from stalls. They were being tended by a young man who’d brought them to safety from a ranch near Healdsburg.
Inside Finley Hall, Doreen Van Leeuwen, a licensed marriage and family therapist and Red Cross volunteer, emphasized how important it was for many, faced with the uncertainty and stress of losing their home and sudden evacuation, to keep their pets with them.
“It’s actually crucial,” she said, “since for some, the pets may be the only family they have.”
Caring for a cat or dog also provides a familiar responsibility, and a sense of control, when so much else is entirely uncertain.
“Bonding with pets,” she noted, “also releases calming hormones … and may provide some physical relief from tension.”
The animals, she pointed out, have the same hormone and likely respond in just the same way. Animals not only benefit from being sheltered with their owners, but can actually be an aid to maintaining psychological health and balance in a disaster.
Virginia, a 41-year resident of Santa Rosa who asked that her last name not be used because she was concerned about the security of her property, was resting on her cot, attended by her alert Australian shepherd, Cooper, and a sleeping 14-year-old Papillon, Charlie. The volunteers, she made a point to say, were wonderful. Beneath a cover near her pillow she revealed a small cage, and inside, a vibrant yellow, orange, blue, red and green parrot, Sonnyman, a Sun Conure. She was in OK spirits, she said, but shook her head: she had no idea what she might find left of her home. They would wait here, for news.
For many, pets are an emotional link to home, reliable companions, like family. People form bonds with their dogs and cats and horses, and when fire comes, those bonds aren’t broken — people don’t willingly or lightly abandon their pets or livestock.
Miriyam, an evacuee with soft, white coiffed hair, who also asked that her last name not be used watched as a social worker from the fairgrounds neighborhood who’d come to volunteer, moved her cat, Sweet Patches, from the crate where she’d cried all night, into a new cage with fresh litter and water. Miriyam had managed to make her way here from the east part of Montgomery Village. In the dark of the fairgrounds, Miriyam related, she’d asked a young man if he could help with her three cats. She said, through tears, he told her “of course,” and brought them all inside.
Liz Perez, who had Koa, her dog, a dark McNab, performing tricks for the other evacuees, opened an oval plastic case and proudly introduced Phyllis the box turtle. There was a moment of confusion, because her neighbor on the adjoining cot was a woman whose name was Phyllis. Everyone laughed. Phyllis the turtle wasn’t eating or drinking, and everyone in a small circle nearby seemed to be concerned. Perez and her pets had been evacuated from the Brush Creek area in the face of dense smoke, sharp wind and approaching fire. They were all making the best of the situation.
The sudden appearance of wildfire has upended many lives, livelihoods and everything familiar. Fortunately, volunteers and resources are making it possible to keep people and their animals together, while they wait for an uncertain future.
Stephen Nett is a Bodega Bay-based Certified California Naturalist.