Rising up to meet the disaster

Palo Alto and surrounding communities respond to North Bay fires

Que Foor helps sort through the many bags of non-perishable food donated by people around the Peninsula at a donation collection center setup at the Seaport Storage Center in Redwood City to deliver goods to fire evacuees from the North Bay fires. Photo by Veronica Weber.

Hear stories from locals who helped in North Bay fire relief efforts on "Behind the Headlines."

Communities across Palo Alto have responded in myriad ways to the devastation of the North Bay fires, dedicating services, manpower and supplies to those who need help. Since the fires broke out on Oct. 8, more than 210,000 acres have burned and at least 42 people have died.

Police departments and public service agencies were among the first to respond early last week. The Palo Alto fire and police departments sent two engines and several fire crew members to Santa Rosa, as well as multiple police officers. Stanford Hospital accepted eight North Bay patients from evacuated hospitals or clinics, including several walk-ins, and issued an alert that Sand Hill Field could close unexpectedly at any time to receive incoming helicopters.

Community members also felt compelled to act. On Tuesday morning, Justin Wethington, who manages a wine storage facility at the Seaport Storage Unit in Redwood City, decided that Seaport was an ideal location to house supplies and reached out to NBC Bay Area to get the word out. Within the day, he began receiving up to 30 calls an hour from people who wanted to donate from places as far as Hawaii and southern California.

As he led volunteers driving truckloads of supplies to Sonoma over the week, Wethington estimates he heard from at least 400 to 500 people, including more than 30 from Palo Alto. One Palo Altan volunteered to drive a truck of supplies to Santa Rosa, and companies such as Apple, Amazon and Google also donated.

"I'm still trying to put it all together in my mind," Wethington said. "I'm just an action person, and that's how it started — I woke up and said, 'I have to do something, so I'll just put this out there: I'm gonna need some help,' and I received tremendous support from everyone."

The facility is no longer accepting supplies onsite, but Wethington is working with the Redwood City Kiwanis Club, where he has been a longtime volunteer, to potentially coordinate more efforts in the area.

Former police officer and Palo Alto Animal Services Officer Ken Cunningham also wasted no time getting to Sonoma. When he arrived early Tuesday morning with pet food for Sonoma Animal Services, he was the first outside agency member on the scene — and already, the Sonoma team was down to just one bag of supplies. Cunningham joined the Sonoma officers in the field as they rescued animals, left food and water at houses and helped livestock owners coordinate evacuations.

The first day, the officers worked for more than 14 hours, and in some cases Cunningham suspected that they were "feeding the crows more than anything."

"We get to the house, and there's no house," he said. "It's just a pile of smoldering debris, and more than likely, the animals are gone. ... Just everything looked gray. The color was just drained from the canvas of the city. Just so, so gray."

Most local agencies, Cunningham said, can only afford to send one person up north so as not to impinge on critical services for their own communities. He returned to Sonoma on Tuesday but soon will have to return to work full-time for his home agency.

Other animal evacuations required quick thinking from friends in Woodside. Larry Gimple, who owns the Horse Park at Woodside, jumped into action at 2:30 a.m. on Oct. 9 when he received a phone call from an acquaintance in Kenwood, an unincorporated area near Chateau St. Jean Winery, located between Santa Rosa and Sonoma. Twelve showhorses from Richie Waite and Sylvia Zerbini's Grande Liberté Farm needed to be evacuated, but there was just one problem: Eight horses had escaped.

While Waite's team corralled the spooked animals — whose portable barns had collapsed, allowing them to run pell-mell around the property — Gimple woke up two of his employees and immediately began preparing the Horse Park to receive the group. By the time Waite and his team arrived around 5:30 a.m., Gimple was waiting with supplies and clean stalls for the horses. The Park, he said, committed several years ago to providing free lodging for the horse community when natural disasters strike.

Local organizers stressed the need to hold onto the energy that has spawned early relief efforts. Lauren Williams, a Palo Alto mom who organized a donation drive at Addison Elementary School, said that she was astonished by how quickly the entire school community was galvanized.

"Hopefully that sparks more support for that region going forward because it's not something that's going to end in two weeks or two months," Williams said. "It's over the long term."

Related content:

Where to donate for victims of North Bay wildfires

Local sports practices canceled as dense smoke lingers

Health advisory in effect due to smoke from North Bay fires

Could the North Bay inferno happen here?


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12 people like this
Posted by Jeremy Robinson
a resident of Duveneck/St. Francis
on Oct 20, 2017 at 11:30 am

I'm so proud of the response and especially that from Ken Cunningham. Ken is one of our wonderful Animal Control Officers in Palo Alto and it's not surprising that his first thought was to save and care for animals. We are blessed to have people like him in our community.

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