AMERICAN CANYON — American Canyon rolled out the welcome mat Wednesday for evacuees from Calistoga, but a space at the high school that can accommodate 600 only had 77 by Thursday morning.
Part of the reason may be a reluctance by Latinos, who make up a significant portion of Calistoga’s population, to risk being picked up by federal immigration agents, shelter volunteers said.
In other cases, these evacuees may be having trouble making their way the length of the Napa Valley on short notice, city officials said
“We are expecting more people,” interim City Manager Jason Holley said Wednesday night. “It takes them a while to gather their things and drive here from Calistoga.”
Others spoke of the fear factor.
“A lot of people in Calistoga are Spanish speaking, and they’re afraid to come” here because they think ICE agents will get them, said American Canyon resident Karina Servente, who was volunteering Wednesday night at the center and helping communicate with those who speak limited or no English.
County Supervisor Belia Ramos was also trying to assuage concerns about the center.
“We certainly are expecting the evacuees to be more Spanish speaking,” she said outside the school’s gymnasium.
“I have been on the radio in Spanish saying it’s really important that the message is consistent,” said Ramos, that “this is a safe haven for everybody.”
“We are not asking immigration status,” she said.
Servente said she had told the few dozen who had arrived: “This is a sanctuary.”
Many migrant workers nonetheless were worried to show their faces at the center, according to evacuee Alfredo Ramirez, who showed up just after dark.
“I know a lot of people,” said Ramirez, a farmworker in Calistoga. “They don’t want to come into these places cause they’re afraid of immigration [authorities]. That’s why they don’t show.”
Ramos said she was concerned migrant workers would resort to “sleeping in their cars.”
“It’s cold, they’re tired,” she said. “I want to make sure they have food.”
Ramirez said he spent part of Wednesday morning sleeping in a car after fleeing Calistoga with his four roommates who also are seasonal workers.
“Three in the morning last night they knocked on the door and said, ‘You got to go,’” he said, recalling the first mandatory evacuation order that was announced in the early morning hours on Wednesday.
He said he and his roommates piled into their two cars and headed south, without any idea where to go.
They got as far as Yountville and decided to pull over. They slept for a few hours in their cars. When they awoke they still had the same problem: where to find shelter.
“We returned back [to Calistoga] because we don’t have a place to go,” he said, standing in front of the bleachers of the ACHS gym. “So we stayed right there [in their apartment] most of the day” on Wednesday.
“But by three o’clock the cops started knocking on the door,” telling them they couldn’t stay in their apartment any longer because of the threat of fire.
So they got back into their cars and began a circuitous journey to American Canyon. They headed east toward Silverado Trail, only to find they couldn’t go south very far, forcing them to head west and then south on Highway 29.
They encountered heavy traffic on their way to Napa and eventually American Canyon, where they pulled into the parking lot of Walmart. Ramirez said they found out about the evacuation center only after doing a Google search on his phone.
He said he was “lucky” to be at the ACHS gym “because they give you everything,” such as food and a place to sleep.
The American Canyon evacuation center did not lack for supplies after opening about 4 p.m. on Wednesday.
The school library was converted into a makeshift food pantry loaded with cases of bottled water, stacks of toiletries and paper products, scores of boxed and canned foods, as well as prepared meals donated by restaurants.
By 10 p.m., volunteers were talking about having to throw away some of the meals they had received because health regulations require unused portions be discarded after four hours.
City Councilmember David Oro, who showed up to help open the center, said he was impressed with American Canyon’s effort to help fire victims.
“It’s incredible,” said Oro. “The outpouring of support and giving from the city of American Canyon is beyond my expectations. I knew we were always a giving community, but there are stacks and stacks of bottles of water, stacks of toiletries. Way more than enough.”
The question remained how much of it would be used, and by how many.
Ramos said she would continue to do radio interviews and call-ins to stations, including KVON in Napa and KBBF, a bilingual public radio station in Santa Rosa.
“I think it’s a matter of getting the word out, and we certainly have been doing that,” she said.