Uncertainty lingered this week over what it means when Sonoma County issues a “mandatory evacuation order,” like the one during the height of the Kincade wildfire.
Despite orders telling almost the entire west county to leave home, some people stayed put even as the fire in Geyserville burned out of control.
“It’s against the law” to disavow a mandatory order, said Sgt. Juan Valencia, the Sonoma County Sheriff’s Department’s public information officer, “but we’re not going to drag people out of their homes or businesses.”
The sheriff advises people they are hindering an emergency effort by staying, said Valencia, and makes sure they know that if they should need help in an emergency there may be nobody be there to respond.
By not evacuating, “They’re putting themselves in jeopardy,” said Valencia, “and they’re being a little selfish. But we’re not going to drag them out of their homes.”
Deputies nowadays wear body cameras, said Valencia. They advise people what the risk is, and if someone chooses not to evacuate, it’s on the record.
Beyond that, said Valencia, “We don’t have the manpower capability to go door-to-door and keep track of everyone.”
When the mandatory evacuation order came in Guerneville down on Saturday night (Oct. 26), my wife and I prepared to leave, but decided it might be safer for us to wait until daylight. When we drove into Guerneville on Sunday morning we wondering whether we faced arrest for being there.
Main Street was vacant and mostly shut down, without power, but people were walking around seemingly oblivious of any mandatory evacuation.
A man with his dog on a leash walked down Armstrong Woods Road into town past the Guerneville firehouse where dozens of parked cars indicated a strong firefighter presence.
Law enforcement patrol cars — Sonoma County Sheriff, CHP and out-of-county guys in patrol cars from all over California — were everywhere, their uniformed drivers ignoring the stragglers or waving hello.
Sunday morning traffic was sparse on River Road and Highway 116 through town, but drivers were heading in both directions. Outside the dark Guerneville Safeway, a woman from Santa Rosa said she’d just driven over with her husband and their dog to see the sights. I asked about the trip — were there visible flames, high winds, checkpoints?
“No problem,” she said.
Longtime river resident Wendell Joost sat on the porch of his house on Fourth Street talking with some bystanders. He wasn’t evacuating yet, said Wendell, but “I’ve got a bag packed.”
If he left town, where would he go?
“I don’t know,” he said.
The consensus on Fourth Street was that Highway 101 was the key. If the fire jumped the freeway we’d have to run for it. None of us planned to leave yet, but if the wildfire jumped the freeway, said Wendell, “I’d think about it.”
Meanwhile the wind was dying down in Geyserville, according to radio news. In Guerneville it was almost dead calm.
I knew a fireman working on the fire in Geyserville, who called my cell phone (which was working) on Sunday to see how we were.
“Where are you?” I asked. “What can you see?”
Firefighting efforts were heavily concentrated on holding the fire’s westward advance at the 101 Freeway, he said. For the fire to spread as far as Guerneville on Sunday would amount to “an act of God.”
I had thoughts about standing on my roof holding a garden hose trained on the rooftop and the yard.
We had put vital papers in the car, gathered meds, dog food, water and other essentials until we felt we were sufficiently packed and ready to go, but we didn’t leave. Why not?
We’re old, for one thing. On Saturday night we were tired at the end of a long day, we don’t like to drive at night and we didn’t know where we’d go. Traffic was already reportedly jammed on the roads out of Sonoma County.
As a member of the news media, I had some wiggle room. I was under orders to leave as a resident, but as a member of the media I was officially exempt. “Media is allowed in disaster areas per state law,” noted Sonoma County Sheriff Mark Essick in a press release.