EDITOR’S NOTE: This article appeared in The New Yorker on Sunday, Oct. 23.
“Heartwarming hell” is how the restaurateur Patty Ginochio summed up the situation in the town of Bodega Bay, on the northwest edge of Sonoma County, Calif., when I met her there on Sunday (Oct. 12). A sturdy woman radiating competence, she was officiating at the Grange, a ramshackle building on Highway 1 that serves as a community center in ordinary times and had become an evacuation dormitory, and then a supply depot, in the wake of the deadly fires raging through the region. The building was full of tables and shelves piled high with donated goods, pillows and sleeping bags, toilet paper and warm gloves, all meticulously organized and labelled in both English and Spanish. A woman volunteer—white-haired, wisecracking—stood behind the Grange kitchen’s serving counter and offered up sandwiches and snacks. A young Latina girl with a delicate band of artificial flowers over her smoothed-back hair wandered the aisles.
No one expected Bodega Bay, a small, unincorporated town far from the fires, to become a major evacuation destination, yet people started pouring in not long after the blazes started, on October 5. Maybe the presence of water, of the Pacific Ocean, drew them, someone in Bodega remarked to me. The first to arrive were families who had fled the fires that had raged through Santa Rosa and other regions; some, another volunteer told me, came with nothing in hand and children still in the pajamas they’d worn to bed. Later came people who were evacuated from areas that hadn’t burned. The first evening, Ginochio found people freezing in the middle of the night and brought them to her restaurant, where she lit the fireplace. When I met her, she talked about the kindness, about the people already working together in teams, less than a week into the crisis, to provide what was needed.
Out at the beach that day at coastal Doran County Park, a few miles away, another Bodega resident described “an overabundance of love” as she strove to manage the flow of would-be helpers and donations that would need sorting and distribution. She also talked about the people she’d tried to dissuade from attempting to help, or interview, the undocumented immigrants who’d fled to the area. During my visit, a woman reporting at the Grange from Turkish TV had come looking for undocumented immigrants and been told why none would be willing to go on camera. The fire’s impact on undocumented people—who are ineligible for most government disaster aid and feared arrest and deportation if their immigration status was checked—had become a hot topic in the media, and the undocumented families who flooded the beaches of Bodega Bay in the first days of the fires retreated from the attention. They began instead to camp by roadsides, Ginochio told me, where one spark from a car could set the dry brush and grass on fire, and organizers began forming networks to provide them with supplies, gift cards, and other donated resources. A few days earlier, ICE had announced that it was suspending immigration enforcement in the areas affected by the fires, and Jared Huffman, the congressman for the northern California Coast, including western Sonoma County, had issued a statement reassuring people that ICE was placing “public safety first.”
My friend Mary Diaz, a thirty-five-year-old artist and activist, lives in the countryside west of Santa Rosa. The second day of the fire, she went out to Bodega Bay and spent a couple of nights as a sort of campsite monitor for the scores of families who were staying in the campgrounds or camping on the beach. The rangers on site were caught between the urgent needs of individuals and the rules and regulations of public land, and volunteers and evacuees worried about whether they’d be allowed to stay. In at least one case, I was told, vacationers with a campground reservation arrived and were indignant to find their spot full of evacuees.
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