Oct 25, 2017
by Houston Porter
Early Monday morning, I awoke to the strong smell of smoke coming in through our open bedroom window. Even after receiving a voicemail in the middle of the night from a friend, telling us that she had just evacuated and that her Coffey Park home was likely devoured by a large fire, we still didn’t realize exactly what was happening.
Even in the beginning stages of this crisis, before we had any idea just how bad it was going to get, Petalumas were mobilizing to help out their neighbors to the north who were fleeing the devastating fires.
We don’t have live TV, so it wasn’t until we logged on that we learned of the size and speed of the recent fires. However, the top of my news feed on Facebook Monday morning was already filling up with Petalumans reaching out to see what they could do to help evacuees. Evacuation centers were already opening, which I would expect, but it was the outpouring of generosity by the citizens and businesses of Petaluma that although not unexpected, still struck deep to my core.
My art is writing, and because my specialty is food, those were the types of posts that initially caught my eye. The first post I saw was an announcement from Ken O’Donnell that McNear’s Saloon would be opening up as a soup kitchen so that evacuees wouldn’t have to worry about where they got their next meal. Next up was an offer of free lunch on Tuesday from Juan Gutierrez at Quinua Cocina Peruvian. Then came dozens and dozens of notifications of all the restaurants, coffee houses, and caterers around town that were rushing hot food to our evacuation centers.
Evacuees flooded into Petaluma as the morning progressed. Lists of needed items kept popping up on Facebook and so between volunteering at various evacuation centers, many of us spent the day scrambling around town buying up and delivering them where needed. As the day progressed, community members stepped up, often by forming Facebook groups, in order to help organize the relief efforts. Everywhere I went, I saw friendly faces, whether it was the calm demeanor of Glen Ross at the Vet’s Hall, the enthusiastic chaos of Brian Tatko and his crew at Jamison’s Roaring Donkey donation center, or Amber Balshaw, Amber Driscoll, and Carolyn Williams helping organize meal deliveries out of Preferred Sonoma Caterers.
One of the first things I inject into a conversation with people who have just moved to Petaluma is some encouragement to find a non-profit or two to volunteer with. One of the reasons that a town of 60,000 people still feels so quant is because everyone is connected and everyone has everyone else’s back. Petalumans do this through massive, ongoing, year-round volunteer efforts. The individuals volunteer and the businesses that they operate, work at, or simply shop at, do the same.
First, they care. Second, they all dropped everything and committed their blood, sweat, and tears (literally) in applying their caring towards the relief efforts, so that evacuees felt less like transients and more like friends. Lastly, none of them were comfortable receiving thanks, instead trying to divert my attention to someone else who they think really deserves the thanks. It is only because of this that I can take solace in the fact that there really is no way to truly thank my fellow citizens for what they have done, are doing, and will continue to do until the crisis is over. Moreover, even before the ash has settle, while many of them are still working on relief efforts around the clock, they are already planning on how to make something like this run more smoothly next time.
One person I have to make special mention of is Michael Seiler, out of San Francisco. He married into Laura Sunday’s family, a woman whose side I have volunteered at for the past decade, volunteering my time to help with food fundraisers such as the Taste of Petaluma, Great Petaluma Chili Cookoff, and Lagunitas Crab Feed. I have grown close to her incredible family, and so it was no surprise when her daughter Jessie snagged a guy with such depth of character as Michael Seiler.
I didn’t know it at the time, but the Sunday’s, sans Michael, were on an airplane headed east, when the fires started. While running around trying to do my part, I started to receive texts from Michael asking what he could do to help. He was coming up from the city to check on the Sunday’s west-side country homestead but wanted to see what else we needed. I pointed him towards the Cavanaugh Center and the Vets Hall, where he ended up volunteering.
Although there was a small fire down Lakeville Hwy, Petaluma appeared to be in the clear. However, unbeknownst to most, a tiny fire started in a field across from the Vets Hall in downtown Petaluma. This really struck home, and so on his way to and from the Sunday’s home, Michael drove the back roads, just as an extra eye on things to make sure no new fires took hold. As with everyone else who helped with the relief efforts, I am honored to call Michael Seiler a friend, and we in Petaluma thank him, and all the rest of the volunteers for going out of their way to help during these trying times.
As I prepared to leave for work in Ukiah on Monday evening, we too packed a few bags and made ready, just in case. The Lakeville fire was throwing a lot of smoke and ash our way so we stayed on high alert. I couldn’t get through on 101, so remained in Petaluma, helping where I could, until the highway finally opened on Tuesday evening. The devastation really hit home on my drive north. Reminiscent of an M.C. Escher painting, curled and drooping guardrails bracket both sides of the freeway. In addition, iconic structures, which have stood for my entire life in Sonoma County, were nowhere to be seen. Although I lost nothing, seeing the scene gave me some insight into what the evacuees must be feeling, whether they knew or didn’t know if their homes were gone. It filled me great pride that my community was doing all it could to help give those victims as much support as we could during such trying times.
Please support the Petaluma businesses that supported, and continue to support the displaced fire victims. And, although they didn’t do this for the thanks, please do thank them for helping to support this incredible county that we call home.
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