Cody Rodriguez never went to sleep the night two years ago when wildfire roared out of tinder-dry hills in Northern California wine country, trapping people unaware in their homes and forcing thousands of panicked residents to flee in the dark.
Still scarred from the experience, Rodriguez and his Santa Rosa roommates grabbed their clothes and hit the road before dawn Sunday, joining an exodus from a wind-whipped wildfire that has been burning since last week in world-famous Sonoma County.
“It has brought a lot of anxiety,” Rodriguez said outside an evacuation center Sunday at Napa Valley College. “I was like, ‘I don’t want to go through this again.’ It was pretty scary.”
Nearly 200,000 people have been ordered from their Northern California homes, including jail inmates and more than 100 hospital patients as well as animals amid fierce winds that prompted the state’s largest utility to cut off power to more than 2.5 million people to try to stave off further wildfires sparked by its power lines.
Tens of thousands of them were ordered to flee in the middle of the night, sending a surge of people to the roads, clogging highways and filling shelters. Many were victims of the deadly wildfires in October 2017 that killed 44 people and destroyed thousands of homes.
Then, there was no warning and officials were faulted for chaotic communications and the lack of notice as the fires bore down. This time, the winds were forecast for days, giving authorities the gift of time.
“You cannot fight this,” Sonoma County Sheriff Mark Essick said, dismissing complaints that the evacuations were too broad. “If you hear the sirens, that means it’s time to go.”
Hundreds of people arrived at the Sonoma County Fairgrounds in Santa Rosa by Sunday, some from senior care facilities. Hundreds slept inside an auditorium filled with cots and wheeled beds. Scores of others stayed in a separate building with their pets.
At another shelter in the nearby town of Petaluma, hundreds of vehicles were parked at the fairgrounds. People pitched tents in between the cars, working by headlamps as night approached, while children played soccer in open grassy areas and others walked pets.
Bruce Buckner was hooked up to an oxygen inhaler, walker within reach, as he sat on a bed in a medical building at the shelter after spending the previous night sleeping in his car. The 65-year-old, who has end-stage emphysema, said he refused the last two times he was ordered to evacuate — once for fire, once for flood — and he wouldn’t have left this time if a sheriff’s deputy hadn’t made him leave.
“There’s no fire anywhere near it,” he said of his home. “The more they cry wolf the more people are going to start ignoring it.”
Still, officials said most people have cooperated, perhaps the memory of devastating fires still fresh in their minds.
Windsor Mayor Dominic Foppoli learned Saturday morning that he was going to “have to pull off the single largest evacuation” in the history of his 30,000-resident town. He was warned to expect to lose a large part of the town.
“It’s a heavy, heavy burden,” he said.
Rodriguez and his roommate Ellie Brown, both 20, said it took an hour to drive from Santa Rosa to Petaluma — a distance of just 17 miles (27 kilometers) — and when they arrived, all they found were chairs and a swelling crowd of other evacuees.
He said he stayed awake the night the 2017 fires erupted because it wasn’t clear if residents had to leave. The chaos and uncertainty were overwhelming.
“We had no idea what we were doing at all,” he said. “The first night I didn’t even get a bag and none of us were really able to sleep after the fire started.”
Evacuee Bill Erdei moved from Santa Rosa to a nearby town after those deadly fires. He was not ordered to evacuate in 2017 but as he did then, he grabbed a flashlight and went outside when he smelled smoke about 3:30 a.m. Sunday.
It took just minutes for police to come by, telling people to leave.
“I just grabbed some clothes, like I was going to a friend’s house. Then I grabbed some food, some water. The bag kept getting bigger and bigger,” he said.
By mid-afternoon, the parking lot outside the evacuation center started to fill.
Ellen Smith had a sense of deja vu as she sat at the Napa Valley College evacuation center for the second time in two years. She brought a station wagon full of important papers, medications and some cash with her
“Calistoga dodged the bullet last time, we’re hoping for two in a row,” she said.
Associated Press writer Janie Har in San Francisco contributed to this story.