‘Where do you put 200,000 people?’ Kincade Fire evacuees fan out in search of shelter

Evacuees from the Kincade Fire raging in Sonoma County are spreading out across Northern California in search of places to stay as they encounter packed emergency shelters, full hotels and power outages.

“There’s probably 200,000 people who evacuated from Sonoma County. And where do you put 200,000 people?” said evacuee Bill Lembcke, KPIX reported. “There’s not that many hotels.”

Lembcke booked rooms at two hotels after fleeing the blaze only to find them full when he arrived, according to the station. He and his wife spent at least one night in their vehicle in a hospital parking lot.

In Sonoma County, the Kincade Fire has burned 75,415 acres and forced 180,000 to evacuate since erupting Wednesday near Geyserville.

The fire has reached 15 percent containment as of Tuesday morning. Several mandatory evacuation orders remain in effect, including all or part of Healdsburg and Windsor.

Emergency shelters are open in Petaluma, Santa Rosa and other communities, but many of those close to the fire are filling up and located in communities suffering PG&E power outages. Some evacuees are heading as far as San Francisco and beyond in search of shelter.

Mayor London Breed ordered an emergency shelter opened Monday morning at Cathedral of Saint Mary of the Assumption, “which can host up to 200 people,” The San Francisco Examiner reported.

Evacuees staying at the shelter recounted harrowing stories of fleeing the flames only to find no place to go.

“We came all the way out to San Francisco because there was no power in the Marin area, no power in San Rafael,” said evacuee Antiono Ramirez of Windsor, KTVU reported. “So, we were looking for something to be safer.”

His family first evacuated to Santa Rosa, then to San Francisco, according to the station.

Evacuee Danielle Ruth of Santa Rosa spent two nights sleeping in her vehicle with her half-sister, three dogs and a cat before arriving at the shelter Monday, The San Francisco Examiner reported. Hotels with no-pet policies turned her away.

“It was much harder than I thought,” Ruth said, according to the publication. “There was no tap water, and no bathrooms. And with the pets on top of it all, that’s a lot.”

The Hotel Council of San Francisco has a list of hotels offering discounts or parking fee waivers to Kincade Fire evacuees.

“A lot of people were coming in during the weekend,” said council executive Kevin Caroll, The San Francisco Examiner reported. “Availability is changing hourly, but hotels are really trying to help out.”

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Don Sweeney has been a newspaper reporter and editor in California for more than 25 years. He has been a real-time reporter based at The Sacramento Bee since 2016.