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Californians Who Fled Fires May Be In Emergency Shelters For Weeks


Across California, firefighters today are wrestling with shifting winds. Those winds are making it harder to contain the wildfires that have forced tens of thousands of people to evacuate on both ends of the state. There has been some progress on the largest fire. That is the Kincade fire in Sonoma County north of San Francisco. Crews there, in the words of one fire official, are, quote, "on the cusp of cautious optimism."


Meantime, many of those camped out in evacuation centers are now struggling with life in those centers and the uncertainty about when they will be able to return home. NPR's Eric Westervelt reports from Sonoma County.


ERIC WESTERVELT, BYLINE: Fire crews in the small town of Windsor, Calif., use rakes and hoses to put out the remaining flare-ups after a wildfire tore through Foothill Regional Park here early Monday. It's a forested area that abuts a densely packed suburban enclave of comfortable homes. Wind-whipped embers raced through the woodlands and sent flames running right up to the houses.

GEORGE GRIJALVA: It came so, so quickly. It got down in that canyon, and it just went crazy.

WESTERVELT: George Grijalva stayed to protect his home. Defying evacuation orders, he battled flames with his garden hose. All around, neighbors' backyard barbecues, decks and trampolines are melted or singed, but the homes themselves survived largely untouched thanks to fast work from firefighters. The wooded park, though, is badly burned.

GRIJALVA: Within a half hour, this was all gone.


WESTERVELT: Wearing flip-flops and sweatpants, Grijalva walks sleep-deprived and a bit dazed up the park's charred pathway. I ask him how he's feeling after yet another close call with wildfire.

Three straight years of horrific fire seasons in California have you at all questioning your commitment to this part of the state or this state?

GRIJALVA: Well, besides fires and earthquakes, we do OK. The problem we have right now - the problem I have is PG&E. So it's just gotten too big. I'm not sure what you replace it with. It's too big, and they don't know what the left hand and right hand's doing half the time. They're in big doo-doo.

WESTERVELT: Anger at bankrupt PG&E for a shoddy safety record runs high as well among those who fled to temporary shelters, many of which are now at full capacity. The utility has cut off power to millions in northern California to try to stop its lines from sparking more fires.

But many at the shelter at the Veterans Memorial Auditorium in Santa Rosa were just too busy trying to get through the day to think about how to reform the state's largest utility. Angelica Martinez and her colleagues are taking care of a dozen elderly people here with Alzheimer's or dementia. She helped evacuate three care homes she runs. Martinez is exhausted, running on what little sleep she can catch in her car in the parking lot. But her patients sleeping on cots in an unfamiliar world of a crowded shelter are having it even harder.

ANGELICA MARTINEZ: They're really fragile. It's ugly. We had - I don't know - maybe 50 beds all together.

WESTERVELT: How are they holding up?

MARTINEZ: Anxious, tired, you know, restless. They're used to the environment that they had at the house. Only six client, but right now, there's a lot of people walking back and forth. I mean, they're getting confused. They want to go to the bathroom at nighttime. Everybody want to sleep. Everybody's tired.

WESTERVELT: Farther south, a one-story community center in Petaluma has been turned into a makeshift evacuation site. A mobile shower trailer and a pet shelter are parked outside. The Lamottes fled the fire from their home in north Healdsburg.

GAYLE LAMOTTE: It's better to be safe than sorry, especially when you have family.

WESTERVELT: Gayle Lamotte digs through the trunk of his car, looking for toiletries to take inside to his wife. Their 11-year-old son Marcus wanders around the parking lot.

LAMOTTE: Marcus, get over here out of the road, please. Thank you. My son's a severe autistic, so he just keeps saying, home, home, home. I mean, I really wish I could take him. Yeah, say home (laughter). He knows a few words, but it's hard with him, you know?


LAMOTTE: No, not yet, sweetie. We'll go home soon.

WESTERVELT: But many evacuees still don't know just when that'll be. For now, many of those displaced by the fire say they're just trying to stay positive and get through each day.

Eric Westervelt, NPR News in Sonoma County, Calif. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Eric Westervelt is a San Francisco-based correspondent for NPR's National Desk. He has reported on major events for the network from wars and revolutions in the Middle East and North Africa to historic wildfires and terrorist attacks in the U.S.