California fires turn shelters into extended homes

SANTA ROSA, Calif. (AP) — Barking dogs, loud snorers and a woman who appears to have dementia crying out every night. Trying to sleep on a cot in a shelter for fire evacuees is not easy.

Nicole Lonefight had spent her nights at a Red Cross shelter on fairgrounds in Sonoma County after flames consumed her prefabricated home in Santa Rosa that she had finished putting together with her husband and best friend days before the fire struck.

The hardest part of life at the shelter is seeing other people who were devastated by the blaze, particularly older people who don’t look like they’ll recover from the trauma, she said.

“It’s already overwhelming to get through what you did,” she said. One older woman at her shelter, she said, woke people up every night, shouting, “Everybody’s gone. They left me here. I don’t want to be here.”

“It’s too much,” Lonefight said. She was hoping for a voucher to sleep at a hotel on Sunday night.

Lois Krier, 86, and her 89-year husband, William, said it was hard to sleep with people snoring and dogs barking. The cots are also uncomfortable, Lois Krier said, before quickly adding that she didn’t want to complain.

With the winds dying down, fire officials said they appeared to have “turned a corner” against the wildfires that have devastated California wine country and other parts of the state over the past week. The number of those under evacuation orders was down to 75,000 from nearly 100,000 the day before and thousands more were expected to get the all-clear to return home in coming days.

Still, Sonoma County listed 18 shelters that were open for evacuees, among them two fairgrounds that had space for recreational vehicles and campers.

Evacuees said they were loath to criticize their living conditions given everything shelter workers were doing to keep them comfortable. William Krier said someone got his blood thinning medication from a pharmacy and took care of the copayment. Lois Krier said volunteers were quick to come over and offer assistance if someone appeared to be fumbling for something in the middle of the night.

At the Sonoma fairgrounds, evacuees watched the San Francisco 49ers on TV and received free chiropractic treatment and haircuts.

At the Sonoma-Marin fairgrounds, another evacuation center about 20 miles away, children played basketball on Saturday with National Guard troops and a poster outside a building used as a cafeteria announced a movie – “Gulliver’s Travels” – in the evening. There were regular hot meals and mounds of donations, with enough diapers and sanitary wipes to stock a neighborhood Costco.

“The kindness has overwhelmed me,” said David Lamb, 78, who evacuated from Santa Rosa. Someone in a neighboring recreational vehicle offered Lamb use of a generator to power a machine he uses at night to breathe. “It makes you wonder why we can’t come together like this all the time,” Lamb said.

Brooke Padgett, 34, was at the Sonoma-Marin fairgrounds with her and her sister’s five kids and their parents. The kids were sleeping in tents, and she and her sister and their parents were in a trailer.

Padgett, who had been at the shelter since Wednesday, said her home was OK.

“The kids just think we’re camping, and they love it,” she said.

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