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Public shelter space limited for Sonoma County wildfire evacuees during pandemic

Shelters that in years past have provided refuge for Sonoma County’s wildfire victims and evacuees this week were replaced with so-called evacuation points as officials test new ways for serving displaced residents in the middle of a pandemic.

The 14,000-acre Walbridge fire west of Healdsburg and the 2,500-acre Meyers fire north of Jenner forced roughly 8,000 people to evacuate by Wednesday night. Another 20,000 residents were warned to prepare to leave their homes.

Those who already fled largely appeared to have found a safe haven on their own, so late Wednesday local officials consolidated shelter coordination at Sonoma County Fairgrounds.

Sonoma County temporary evacuation points

Sonoma County Fairgrounds, 1350 Bennett Valley Road, Santa Rosa

Residents are advised the fairgrounds is not an overnight shelter and will be redirected by county staff to options including RV parking, hotels and motels and places to stay, with or without their small pets. Large animals and livestock can be housed at the fairgrounds.

Supervisor James Gore said the county has been working for months on evacuation procedures during a pandemic, adopting a strategy in which residents are quickly referred to hotels, motels, RV parking and even campsites, depending on their needs. The goal is to avoid congregating people indoors at an evacuation center, he said.

Another eight deaths and 197 new coronavirus cases, both single-day records, were reported Wednesday by county health officials, underscoring the threat the coronavirus continues to pose.

“We all know you have to be intentional and focused to manage safety with COVID,” Gore said. “We also know that the frenzy of disaster times doesn’t always allow that intentionality. Ultimately, like preparedness, … the best protection is acting smart.”

County spokesman Paul Gullixson said that after consolidating temporary evacuation points at the fairgrounds and finding hotel rooms and other places to stay for as many people as possible, there were at least 22 people who needed shelter Wednesday at 7:30 p.m.

Any residents seeking county-sponsored shelter first were given a health screening, including questions about potential coronavirus exposure and a temperature check.

Anyone that showed COVID-19 symptoms or had a fever was placed in a separate medical building on the fairgrounds. Another building was opened for anyone considered at risk of contracting the virus.

During a press briefing, Chris Godley, the county’s top emergency management official, said the fairgrounds was not equipped to handle residents long term who have tested positive for COVID-19, have symptoms or have come into contact with someone infected.

The few people inside the fairgrounds building were assigned a 100-square-foot space to maintain social distancing. Packaged snacks were sanitized, and meals would be brought directly to their space, rather than the typical chow line.

Masks were required at all times.

Mark Powell, 68, of Guerneville sat on a folded plastic chair outside the fairgrounds entrance Wednesday, patiently awaiting a call that would signal if the county had secured lodging for a few nights.

All he had was the clothing on his back and a small cooler carrying his medication to treat underlying conditions that make him susceptible to a potential fatal case of COVID-19. The surgical mask atop his long white beard would bunch up every time he spoke, and when he did it was usually to tell a joke.

“Next step? I’ve got to find a belt to hold my jeans up,” Powell said. “There may be a chance of possibly getting me into a motel or something. I have some health conditions.”

Shortly after, the call arrived and Powell was sent to a hotel in Healdsburg.

Dr. Jason Cunningham, CEO of West County Health Centers, said the limited interest in county services so far was a topic of conversation for health officials wondering if the pandemic had forced people to avoid seeking it out, or that the public messaging was failing to reach everyone.

A few buses had shuttled homeless camped in west county evacuation zones to the county fairgrounds where they were then placed into a shelter, he said. His fear was some may be ignoring orders, or slip through the cracks with the fires spreading across such a remote region.

“Is this a vulnerable population we’re leaving behind or a group that’s really staying that’s choosing not to go?” Cunningham said. “I don’t know if we have the answer to that yet.”

Staff Writer Martin Espinoza contributed to this story. You can reach Staff Writer Yousef Baig at 707-521-5390 or yousef.baig@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @YousefBaig.

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