Assessing the crowded Napa Valley College shelter Wednesday afternoon, Heather Fieser, 74, had one conclusion: “I think they emptied Calistoga here.”
The shelter, located in the college gym, swelled overnight to 688 people once a mandatory evacuation was issued in the pre-dawn Wednesday to nearly half of Calistoga, said Jody Kimbrel, shelter manager with the Red Cross. Later in the day, the entire city of Calistoga was evacuated.
“It was insane,” said Mariano Guzman, 19, describing the scene outside his family’s apartment building as people packed up. He remembered the sound of slamming trunks.
Guzman’s family had packed their belongings in the car on Sunday night, he said, when they could see a red glow coming over the trees.
Although he had arrived at the Napa shelter in the middle of the night, Guzman said he hardly slept.
“Some people were freaking out because who wouldn’t be in this situation?” Guzman said. “We don’t know anything about what’s going on in Calistoga.”
Calistoga resident Samuel Chino said that the TV news had reported that there were homes burning in Calistoga around noon Wednesday, but his friend, who was still in Calistoga, told him that nothing was on fire there.
“I’m a little concerned,” he said because he had no idea what was true. “I have more than 24 hours awake.”
“I think the community is very strong,” he said calmly. It’s OK to lose material possessions, he said, as long as lives aren’t lost.
Local taco trucks lined up in front of the college gymnasium on Wednesday while residents continued to drop off clothing and food donations to the Red Cross, the shelter operator. Other than eating and sleeping, evacuees staying in the shelter gathered around on black plastic folding chairs to watch television news on a single flat-screen TV.
Children were given coloring books and board games – a few little ones ran around chasing balloons moments after announcements were made for children not to run inside the shelter. Meanwhile, a toddler slept soundly on an adult-size cot with a jacket draped over her like a blanket.
Older children gathered in groups outside.
Jatziry Rivas, 11, Marco Maldonado, 12, and Brian Gonzalez, 12, were sitting on some steps eating Flamin’ Hot Cheetos and talking.
“This is our second day here,” Maldonado said. They had arrived about 4 a.m. Wednesday – it was now about 1 p.m. He guessed they’d be at the shelter all week.
“We could see it,” he said of the fire that started on Tubbs Lane. “It was kinda far, but still noticeable.”
“Some of the high school burned down,” Rivas said. She was immediately told by another Calistoga youth that that was only a rumor.
Rivas said that she and her friends know a lot of people at the shelter since it’s about all of Calistoga. Some people, though, went to motels in Vallejo, she said.
Amanda Garcia and her parents had stayed in the parking lot of the shelter overnight after leaving their home in Angwin. They wanted to get ahead of the fire, just in case, and planned on driving to her brother’s house in Riverside Wednesday afternoon.
“Last night all of this was empty,” she said of the lot.
“This morning when we woke up, we were surrounded,” added her father, Cesar Garcia. By 11 a.m., the parking lot facing Highway 221 was nearly full, packed with personal vehicles, trailers and RVs.
Since they left before their home was in any danger, they had some time to pack important things like photographs and documents.
“We had time – thank God – to grab pictures from our three kids when they were little,” Cesar Garcia said.
The family lost electricity on Sunday night and had temporarily been benefitting from a generator that Pacific Union College had on-site, but when that flickered for a moment on Tuesday, they decided to head south.
“A lot of students left, too,” Amanda Garcia said. Despite her calm demeanor as she rearranged items in the family car, Garcia said that she was “freaking out” inside.
“It’s hard and kind of scary,” she said. It helps knowing how to react and what to be prepared with – things like a “go bag” and lots of water bottles, she said.
“You never know where the fire’s going to go – that’s the problem,” her father said.
Craig VanDale hadn’t been evacuated either. He “bailed out” of his home in the Avenues days ago. He and his 13-year-old son, Jacob, and their dog, Buddy, had been sleeping in his SUV. But they had run out of food and it got pretty cold on Tuesday night.
“He thinks we’re camping,” he said of his son who is happy to be out of school for a few days.
Wednesday afternoon, VanDale said that he wasn’t sure yet what he thought about the shelter or if he and his son would actually sleep there.
“It’s a madhouse,” he said. “It’s stressful when you get in until you get signed in, then it’s like ‘I don’t want to stay here.’ We might stay in the parking lot if they let us.”
“I didn’t even know we could fit that many,” said shelter manager Kimbrel. Later that afternoon, overflow of about 100 people were scheduled to be transported to a shelter at St. Apollinaris Catholic Church in north Napa, which had already been housing a dozen evacuees since Monday.
There were more than 300 people staying at CrossWalk Church on First Street. The gym and the sactuary were both full of cots Wednesday afternoon, according to representatives with the church.
A fourth shelter in the county was opened at American Canyon High School following a full evacuation of the City of Calistoga at about 3 p.m.