Gymnasium converted to Red Cross Shelter after fires ravage Northern California

By Michael Santone, Associate Editor

Due to the rapid growth of the North Bay Fires, the Contra Costa College Gymnasium has been designated an evacuation center by the Red Cross.

Blankets, pallets of food and water and 325 cots arrived by semi-truck late Wednesday night as multiple wildfires push their way through Napa, Sonoma and Solano Counties leaving a trail of death and destruction in their wake.

“No one has arrived as of yet,” Red Cross lead volunteer Martha Fateman said Friday morning.

“We are ready and waiting to provide assistance once evacuees began to show up.”

Fateman said “We are not 100 percent sure now, but we might be moving to another location — once we get word we will know.”

The gym floor, which is covered with a blue tarp is divided into four sections for single men and women, families and those with pets.

Upon arrival, evacuees must register before they are given a blanket and comfort kit that includes shampoo, toothbrush and toothpaste and feminine hygiene products.

Breakfast, lunch and dinner will be provided, along with snacks throughout the day.

“This is a great facility for a shelter with lots of showers and restrooms,” Fateman said. “The food will be locally sourced and we have many volunteers and other agencies ready to offer help.”

According to Cal Fire, as of Thursday, a total of 180,000 acres have burned and 3,500 homes destroyed.

Over 50,000 people have been evacuated and mandatory evacuation orders are continuing as flames inch closer to surrounding cities and towns.

“It’s a day-to-day assessment. We don’t know what these fires will do next,” she said. “Contra Costa College has been a great partner and we are prepared to stay as long as we need to.”

The decision to use the CCC gym as a shelter came hours after an announcement that Thursday classes had been cancelled.

During the district Governing Board meeting on Wednesday night in Martinez, Vice President Timothy Farley said earlier discussions helped set a clear path forward for the Red Cross shelter.

“This is quite a first for our district, so I’m sure it will be a little bumpy at first,” he said. “But I think for the service of the communities that we are involved in — I absolutely support this decision.”

West Contra Costa County social worker Teresa Gonzalez said she received a call late Wednesday night about helping out at the Red Cross shelter evacuation center at CCC.

“Social services needs to be involved in the process to provide aid and comfort to those who are affected by these fires,” she said. “When they come in we want to welcome them, ask if they are ok and if there is anything they need.”

Gonzalez said originally the Red Cross shelter was supposed be in Fairfield, however, with the fire spreading in that direction it was relocated to CCC in San Pablo.

“Most of the evacuation centers are reaching capacity and with the fires nowhere near contained, the need for more resources is necessary,” she said.

Many evacuees have only minutes to spare as they frantically collect what they can before escaping.

With little time, essential things like medication or health equipment is sometimes forgotten.

“These people are scared and in shock with only the clothes on their back,” Gonzalez said. “It’s my job to make them feel as comfortable as possible.”

Red Cross volunteer, Carrie Morgan, who recently helped those impacted by Hurricane Irma in Florida said that one key element in natural disasters is aid and resources.

“Basic needs are always the same; shelter, food and support,” he said. “No matter, if there is a flood outside or a wall of fire, everything has been rehearsed over and over again.”

Morgan who came from Arizona to help has volunteered in a number of different disasters including a flood that ravaged his own home.

“If there is one thing we’ve learned is that people will not leave their pets,” he said. “We accommodate and won’t turn anyone away.”

For those evacuating the firestorms that have plagued Northern California, getting out is just the beginning.

As the smoke clears and damage is assessed the aftermath of what remains can be a shocking blow for those who have to rebuild their lives.

“Some of these shelters will be open for months so they can provide support for those to get back on their feet.” Fateman said. “Many people have lost their homes and jobs. It’s just horrible to think about.”