LGBTs Begin Returning Home After Fires
by Heather Cassell
North Bay LGBTs hit hard by the firestorm that ripped through the heart of wine country began returning home as evacuation orders were lifted and firefighters gained control more than a week after what has now become the worst fires in California’s history.
As of Wednesday, the death toll stood at 42, officials said, and includes one person who died at a hospital of smoke inhalation.
Firefighters from throughout the state were joined by those from outside California – including Australia and Canada – to help contain the wildfires, which were mostly in Mendocino, Napa, and Sonoma counties.
Some people continued to wait anxiously as their homes were in the path of the Nuns and Oakmont fires. By Wednesday, the Nuns Fire, which threatened the Robert Mondavi Winery, was 80 percent contained. The Tubbs Fire was 91 percent contained.
Evacuation orders were lifted for Calistoga and the perimeters of the city of Napa October 15. By Tuesday, tens of thousands of evacuees began to return home as more evacuations were lifted.
Reservations at accommodations and restaurants are replacing cancellations, said gay owners of local bed and breakfasts.
“It’s certainly been a hell of a week up here. Things are calming down. We are trying to get the businesses up and running,” said Brian Dingman, a 50-year-old gay man who co-owns the Juice Shack with his friend Doug Randolph, 45, who is also gay.
Chefs, bakers, and restaurateurs, such as bakery owner Christian Sullberg, a queer man, and Terri Stark, an ally, came together to feed evacuees and first responders last weekend. The culinary artists are taking feeding the masses to the next level by forming a charity to help with what’s expected to be a long recovery, Stark said.
Stark co-owns six restaurants with her husband, Mark, and employs 400 people. The couple lost Willi’s Wine Bar in the Tubbs Fire that roared through Santa Rosa’s Coffey Park and Fountaingrove neighborhoods.
“Right now, we are just trying to get our business back going so we can stay in business,” said Stark, who distributed the 52 displaced employees to her five other restaurants while the couple rebuilds.
“Sonoma wine country is still here and has beautiful things to offer,” added Stark, noting that visitors are a huge part of supporting California’s premier wine region. “There was devastation in many areas, but you know, it’s not like everything is gone.”
However, it’s going to be a long process to return home for many LGBT residents who called the Fountaingrove and Oakmont neighborhoods in Santa Rosa home as well as other parts of Mendocino, Napa, and Sonoma counties. Officials said that an estimated 5,700 structures burned to the ground.
Some North Bay LGBTs are still reeling from fleeing for their lives, and the loss, while others are now eyeing relief and recovery efforts to get life back to normal.
Paul Pendergast described a harrowing escape with his husband, Rob Zelenka, and their 10 neighbors on a single-lane country road between Calistoga, Kenwood, and Santa Rosa October 9. The 50-something gay men had to battle high winds that took down a 250-year-old pine tree that fell across the road around 11 p.m. October 8, the night the fires started. The men and their neighbors took out their chainsaws to cut through the tree to clear a path on the road. A live power line also fell across the road. When the men were done around 2 a.m., they smelled smoke and saw fire fast approaching. They maneuvered under the power line to escape the blaze, Pendergast told the Bay Area Reporter.
The men were allowed back to their home later that week, but they were evacuated a second time Saturday, October 14, when a different fast-moving inferno came directly toward their home. They went to Pendergast’s cousin’s house in Freestone with their cat, Jack, and two dogs, Cody and Lucy, and hadn’t returned home as of Tuesday morning.
“It’s been an excruciating week,” said Pendergast, who is vice president for public policy at the Golden Gate Business Association, the LGBT chamber of commerce.
“The devastation is just horrendous. We know a lot of LGBT people who have been displaced. People have lost their houses, especially in the Fountaingrove area, and some people we know are still not back in their houses in the Oakmont area, because there are a lot of LGBT people in that neighborhood as well.”
Queer couple Pedro and Katalina Magdaleno escaped with all of their animals as the Redwood Valley Fire approached their family ranch in Mendocino County.
The couple awoke in the middle of the night to a sound that could have been a tree falling onto their property. When they stepped out of their house, the sky was red.
“We looked out and we saw the sky was red. You could see the flames from our house,” said Magdaleno, 29, a gay man, who also helped his neighbors evacuate.
The couple got their animals out, but they didn’t get any of their personal belongings, he said.
The ranch buildings burned to the ground and the couple is now homeless and staying in different locations, he told the B.A.R.
His wife, Katalina, a 21-year-old transgender woman, is staying where she is pet sitting for the moment and is taking their loss hard, he added.
“I feel like I’m grateful that I’m alive. I’m grateful that I can wake up every morning and kiss my wife or see her or just feel like you know it’s going to get better,” said Magdaleno.
Magdaleno is a graduate student studying social work, and is pressing forward with the help of his boss, who is a lesbian. She opened a spare room in her home for him, he said. He’s working to get his family what they need while helping the local community with relief and recovery efforts despite his own tragedy. He’s also trying to keep life as normal as possible, attending board meetings as a member of the Mendocino Pride Alliance.
“The LGBT community is going to have a lot of needs in the short-term and also in the long-term with help with this disaster,” said GGBA’s Pendergast.
A sense of normalcy is only a perception, according to some.
“This whole area will be forever changed. No way will it be what it was. It’s just unbelievable,” said Dingman, a Sonoma Valley native.
Rushing In To Help
Individuals and businesses are stepping up to aid people in the relief and recovery.
Graton Resort and Casino in Rohnert Park announced it’s donating $1 million to aid the victims of the fires. Additionally, it has temporarily housed about 100 of its employees impacted by the fires and has created the Team Member Assistance Fund to provide basic necessities to the resort’s employees. The resort is giving families impacted by the fires who are in the Federated Indians of Graton Rancheria, which owns Graton Resort and Casino, $5,000, said Greg Sarris, tribal chairman. The casino is managed by Station Casinos.
“It’s not a sin to be generous,” said Sarris, a 65-year-old gay man, who recently published a history of the Sonoma Valley, “How a Mountain Was Made: Stories.”
In San Francisco, Robb Fleischer, a 54-year-old gay man who is the co-founder of AMSI Real Estate Services and is a past president of GGBA, has been working to place people in the company’s vacant homes and help process insurance claims as well as donate supplies for basic needs.
“I can say our hearts go out to all of those that have been affected,” said Fleischer, who has placed three families in temporary homes and helped a dozen households find alternative housing in Marin, Napa, and Sonoma. “We are going to continue to do anything we can to help.”
Dingman said that the fires have affected many of his employees and their families. His businesses survived, but the four locations in Santa Rosa were just opening their doors again, while the locations in Petaluma and Rohnert Park reopened October 11, he said.
His stores have put out collection bins for donations to help employees affected by the fire and gathering clothing to take to local donation spots, he said.
However, he knows at least 21 friends – LGBT and straight – as well as his own family members, who have lost their homes and/or businesses due to the devastating fires. Some are staying with friends and family around the county or San Francisco or camping out in recreational vehicles.
“It’s heartbreaking working in the stores. Everybody has a story. Everybody knows somebody that lost a home,” said Dingman.
Hope And Kindness
Yet, there is hope amidst smoke and rubble.
“Customers coming in and talking to others in line, which you don’t see. You see that now. It’s sad that it takes something like this to bring a community together, but at the same time it’s brought a community together,” said Dingman.
Gary Saperstein, who returned Monday to his home in the city of Sonoma, agreed.
“It’s an amazing thing witnessing the human kindness pulling together to help people out,” he said. “People open up their homes, the things that should happen when these kind of things happen.”
Others also noted a renewed sense of community.
“It’s been reassuring for me as a board member to see how many of our community have stepped up to help the broader community around us,” said Ken Kunert, 71, a gay man who is the secretary and treasurer of the Billy Foundation, a gay men’s organization in Santa Rosa.
The foundation is working to activate its emergency relief fund for its nearly 2,000 members, some who were evacuated and one who lost everything, he said, adding that the board will then examine the best ways it can expand its focus to help the wider community.
Sarris pointed out that nature doesn’t discriminate.
“I’m just so proud of our community,” he said. “All of us are in a position now to learn the importance of loving and being responsible for one another.”
For wildfire updates sign up for http://www.nixle.com.
For road closure updates, visit http://roadconditions.sonoma-county.org.
For housing, Airbnb’s Open Home program was activated last week.
The San Francisco Hotel Council and San Francisco Travel have partnered with Sonoma Valley Visitors Bureau to provide discounted hotel rates at a number of hotels around the Bay Area, with some offering free breakfast, parking, and welcoming pets. For more information, contact Kevin Carroll, executive director, at or visit, http://www.sonomavalley.com/fire.
Share Sonoma County is arranging housing for displaced residents. For more information, contact or visit http://www.facebook.com/cityofpetaluma/posts/1594477753941501. To volunteer, visit the Petaluma People Services Center, 1500 Petaluma Boulevard, South, Petaluma.
Tech workers created a public Google doc listing free housing. Visit https://docs.google.com/spreadsheets/d/1yeWV1dRiKFo8M1yX64–V6HLQZBSQSSenfqdoUnsiOI/edit – gid=0.
AMSI Real Estate Services, which has offices in Marin, San Francisco, and San Diego, opened up its vacant homes for temporary housing to fire victims and is helping people navigate insurance claims. For assistance, call (415) 447-2000 or email .
Mendocino’s North Coast Opportunities Volunteer Network, call (707) 462-1959 or visit http://www.ncoinc.org/programs/volunteer-network.
Napa’s Center for Volunteer and Nonprofit Leadership has a place where people can find volunteer opportunities and sign up to help. Visit https://cvnl.galaxydigital.com.
The Billys Foundation, a gay men’s organizations located in Mendocino and Sonoma, is supporting individual members, gathering donations, and raising funds for the most vulnerable communities affected by the fires. To donate, visit https://thebillys.org/donate.
Billys members and partners Dewey Schott and Allan Stonebreaker have launched their own campaign focused on supporting day laborers, domestic workers, and undocumented individuals affected by the fires. Schott urged individuals to donate at http://undocufund.org or their campaign, which has raised more than $4,000 toward its $50,000 goal, at http://www.gofundme.com/rebuild-sonoma-and-Napa-Counties.
Savings Bank of Mendocino is gathering donations for Mendocino and Lake counties. Mail checks to P.O. Box 3600, Ukiah, CA 95482 or visit, https://www.savingsbank.com/documents/2017 Documents/Fires_NCO_Disaster_Fund_More_InformationPage.pdf.
Sonoma’s Positive Images is collecting donations, which can be made to http://posimages.org/donate, or a check can be sent to Positive Images, 200 Montgomery Drive, Suite C, Santa Rosa, CA 95404 with #sonomacountyfires in the comment section online or memo section on the check.
Napa’s LGBTQ Connection, an LGBT youth organization, is open and providing a safe gathering space, food, water, free Wi-Fi, charging stations, child care, and other needs to the community. The organization is also gathering supplies and taking donations, said Ian Stanley, program director. The organization is currently in need of gift cards to major retailors for food, clothing, blankets, child care supplies, and other basic necessities. People seeking services, in English and Spanish, should contact Jessie Hankins at . To donate, visit https://onthemove.thankyou4caring.org/donatetolgbtq or drop supplies off at 780 Lincoln Avenue, Napa, CA 94558.
The Napa Valley Community Foundation is raising funds for victims of the fires. For more information, visit http://www.napavalleycf.org.
The North Bay Fire relief campaign organized by Redwood Credit Union, visit www.redwoodcu.org/northbayfirerelief.
The United Way of Wine Country’s Relief Fund is at https://uwwc.upicsolutions.org/ecommunity/comm/SinglePageRegPledge.jsp.
Building owners and managers and the San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency are issuing free temporary parking permits in select residential parking permit areas to individuals who evacuated the North Bay due to the fires. To apply for the permit, complete the form and submit in person Monday through Friday, from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. at the SFMTA Customer Service Center, 11 South Van Ness Avenue in San Francisco. For more information, visit http://www.sfmta.com/nbtemp.
San Francisco-based Rainbow World Fund is mobilizing to raise funds and will have the Rainbow World Fund bus parked at Jane Warner Plaza in the Castro to gather supplies to take immediately to Napa and Sonoma said Executive Director Jeff Cotter. For more information, visit www.rainbowfund.org. To donate, visit https://donatenow.networkforgood.org/1210623.
Originally published by the Bay Area Reporter.
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