The phone call that roused Tamara Jones from a sound sleep seemed, at first, a figment of her slumber.
On the night of Oct. 8, a woman whose wedding was six days away frantically dialed the Napa event planner who was to coordinate the ceremony. Jones, napping off her exhaustion after planning another couple’s nuptials the day before, heard screaming and crying on the line – and something about flames.
“I thought I was having a wedding planner’s nightmare – I thought I was dreaming, so I hung up on her,” Jones recalled this month. “Then she called back screaming, ‘It’s burning!’ She said her godparents’ house was on fire. I got dressed and washed up and I told her, ‘I’ll call you back.’ Then I called her godparents – no answer.”
It would take a few more hours before Jones, a wedding planner for 15 years and Napa resident for four, realized the news was not about a mere house fire, but three major infernos that would destroy thousands of buildings and kill 44 people across the North Bay.
The wildfires, however, became a time for hundreds of Napans to pitch in and help those in need as best they could. And for more than a week, Jones would be one of those volunteers – heading to an evacuation center at Napa Valley College, and helping others donate supplies and steer them to those who needed them.
When Jones arrived at the NVC shelter Oct. 10, two days after the outbreak of fires, she saw little rhyme or reason in how supplies were being stored or distributed.
“I went downstairs to where the supplies and donations were being deposited,” she recalled. “It was chaotic. There was a girl trying to run it all, but she had no organizational experience. I worked with her all day, and when she left I asked everyone else to stay.
“I’m an event planner by trade, so logistics is my jam. I’m a bossy person – but it’s all done in love. I think my personality met the responsibility. And all the ‘honeys’ were of a good heart; they just wanted to help one another.”
Those who had come to campus to pitch in – at least 50 by Jones’ count – were a diverse bunch: students, farmworkers and shelter residents escaping the fires themselves, the youngest 13 and the oldest 80. Too busy to learn all the helpers’ names, she unintentionally inspired a name for the impromptu shelter team.
“There were too many people to remember all their names. I was like, ‘Honey, can you come here?’” she said. “So we started calling the (operation) that was growing the ‘honeypot.’ People started calling their friends saying, ‘Hey, there’s this honeypot here; what do you need tonight?’”
What they had in common were growing piles of donated goods, and a need to bring order to the chaos, quickly.
Through trial and error, Jones and other helpers gradually took charge of receiving, sorting, loading and shipping. NVC’s gym, racquetball courts, coaches’ offices and a yoga room became a depot for bottled water, blankets, bedsheets, clothing and toiletries, all the items that nearly 700 people needed to get through several days away from their homes.
Scribbled Post-it notes stuck to doors got the word out to others that more donations were needed, and Jones turned her Facebook account into another megaphone to encourage friends, and their friends, to contribute. Volunteers eventually came from as far away as South Lake Tahoe, where one resident left with a full vehicle load of supplies, pitched in at the NVC shelter for a day and drove home.
“If you drove there to ask if we needed help, the answer was always ‘yes’,” she said. “The amount of love you saw from people was tremendous.”
“I think her background in wedding planning really helped – commanding people, organizing things,” said Damon Haidary, who left his Calistoga home during the Tubbs Fire and later assisted Jones at the NVC shelter while staying there. “Also, she’s just a very likable person. She was really nice and seemed to be in charge; she really seemed to have it together.”
As the days passed and fire crews beat back the flames from Napa, Calistoga and Oakville, Jones began to look ahead to what evacuees would need once their homes were out of danger.
“In my mind, these folks were going to go home; I didn’t know exactly what they’d be going home to, but I knew they were going to go home,” she said. “Back home they would have no power and the food would be spoiled, so let’s make these go-boxes for them: towels, socks, underwear, batteries, flashlights, diapers, wipes.”
Volunteers using donated cardboard cartons and packing tape stuffed about 1,000 “go-boxes” with essential supplies, allowing their recipients to resume daily life as smoothly as possible.
At 2 the next afternoon, Calistoga ended its evacuation after four days, and more than 5,000 people were able to head home. “Twenty minutes later, we had cars lining up (in the parking lot) and we said, ‘All right, let’s go,’” Jones remembered of that day, a week after the fires broke out. “We put the boxes and water in their cars and sent them on their way.”
With so much to do, times to reflect on the scale of the task were few. But one admirer found a way to show his thanks, on behalf of all who had endured the worry and fret in a region under threat.
“None of us had cried, none of us had shown any emotion, until a professor wrote us a poem,” said Jones. “We were eating pizza, planning out the next day, and he reads this poem to us and I swear to God, you could feel the weight of everyone in the room just flooding out.”
The poem by NVC professor Robert Millay included the words:
God bless all the shelters
And all those within,
From their heartbreaking losses and the peril we’re in.
“It was the first time they had cried, the first time they were able to let it down,” remembered Jones, still stifling a sob nearly two months later. “I think that’s when I fell in love with humanity again.”