A San Luis Obispo firefighter fights a blaze at a winery in Sonoma, Oct. 27, 2019.  /San Luis Obispo Fire Department-Twitter
A San Luis Obispo firefighter fights a blaze at a winery in Sonoma, Oct. 27, 2019. /San Luis Obispo Fire Department-Twitter

Wildfires, power outages, evacuations — Jewish community scrambles

As the Kincade wildfire raged over 66,000 acres in mostly rural Sonoma County over the weekend, destroying roughly 100 buildings, forcing 185,000 people to evacuate and leading to power outages for hundreds of thousands of homes and businesses, the Jewish community struggled to maintain a sense of normalcy — and prayed for a better outcome than the catastrophic destruction of the 2017 North Bay fires.

Jewish communities from Healdsburg to Sebastopol underwent mandatory evacuations.

Rabbi Mendel Wolvovsky of Chabad of Sonoma County said he knew a family living outside Windsor whose home on Shiloh Ridge was destroyed by the blaze, which was just 15 percent contained as of Tuesday.

The Chabad center and many of its congregants were still struggling with ongoing power outages. A funeral scheduled for Monday had to be postponed.

“Everything’s very unsettled and chaotic,” Wolvovsky said. “With the combination of no power, phone services shoddy and the smoke in the air — today was the worst day yet. It’s very eerie.”

The Kincade Fire, which started on Oct. 23 near the unincorporated town of Geyserville, spread furiously south toward Santa Rosa in the ensuing days, with help from wind gusts over 90 mph. More than 4,000 firefighters, many coming from other parts of California and out of state, have been battling the flames.

Rabbi Mordecai Miller of Congregation Beth Ami in Santa Rosa was leading services on Saturday morning when a congregant told him that the town of Healdsburg, less than 20 miles north of the shul, was under mandatory evacuation. Two years ago, seven Beth Ami congregants lost their homes in the Tubbs Fire. Miller still keeps in his office a Hanukkiah recovered from a congregant’s home, the metal turned green from oxidation.

The rabbi updated his congregants right away. “We decided to complete services, as we weren’t under mandatory evacuation,” he told J. “We had Kiddush. Then we arranged to have the Torah scrolls taken off the premises to a safe place.”

Rabbi George Gittleman of neighboring Congregation Shomrei Torah, located a couple of miles to the south, said his synagogue community was bracing for impact, with two days of high winds forecast starting Tuesday morning that threatened to spread the fire and shift its direction.

“Basically most of the county is evacuated,” Gittleman said Monday, “so most of our people have left town. The synagogue is not open, and probably not tomorrow. All schools are closed, and we’re holding steady trying to figure out how we can help.”

Shomrei Torah took a leading role providing community assistance during the 2017 fires —offering child care, meals and counseling for congregants and other neighbors. The Tubbs Fire, the most destructive of those North Bay fires, leveled Camp Newman and incinerated entire neighborhoods of Santa Rosa.

Conditions north of Santa Rosa on Lockwood Drive in Windsor. /Sonoma County Sheriff’s Department-Twitter
Conditions north of Santa Rosa on Lockwood Drive in Windsor. /Sonoma County Sheriff’s Department-Twitter

Should the Kincade fire move into Santa Rosa, Gittleman said the shul will be ready. “We may open the synagogue like we did in the past,” he said.

At Shir Shalom in Sonoma, congregational president E. Michèle Samson told J. that Rabbi Steve Finley was working to make sure that the synagogue, which shares space with a church, would stay open to provide shelter as needed.

“The fire seems to be going in our direction, but we hope it’s contained soon,” she said.

Just as in other communities, Shir Shalom congregants were being evacuated or dealing with the loss of power. Those who suffered major losses in previous fires were feeling “extremely anxious,” Samson said.

Rabbi Ted Feldman of B’nai Israel Jewish Center in Petaluma said on Monday that many of his congregants were still living with power outages and extremely smoky air. A number who live north of the city were evacuated and staying with relatives, he said.

“It’s sad,” said Feldman, who offered to collect donations for the evacuees. “Everyone is asking, ‘Is this the new normal?’”

Gov. Gavin Newsom declared a state of emergency Sunday as fires raged across the state, including the 4,600-acre Tick Fire in Southern California. More than 3 million homes were hit with power outages, both due to precautionary shut-offs and wind damage that downed power lines. In Northern California, PG&E cut power to 970,000 homes and businesses, and another 100,000 customers lost electricity due to strong winds.

The JCC of Sonoma County postponed a film festival event scheduled for Tuesday in Sebastopol.

“Most people in the community lost power, just like we did,” said Rabbi Elchonon Tenenbaum of Chabad of Napa Valley. “We had a lot of downed power lines and trees down. You have to be really cautious; keep your kids inside.”

In Vallejo, part of Chabad’s coverage area, nerves were further rattled when a separate fire, a 200-acre blaze near the Carquinez Bridge, forced community members in Benicia and Vallejo to evacuate on Sunday.

“The smoke is just terrible today,” Tenenbaum said Monday. “No visibility.”

The last two wildfire seasons, including the 2018 Camp Fire that destroyed the town of Paradise, were the deadliest and most destructive in the state’s history, fueled by drought, the build-up of dry vegetation and extreme winds, according to the California Department of Forestry and Fire Prevention. With fire seasons beginning earlier and ending later, climate change is considered a “key driver” of the trend, according to CalFire.

So far this year 5,657 wildfires have burned across the state. Over the weekend, Kincade was the biggest North Bay fire, but not the only one.

On Sunday, a roughly 10-acre fire near Lafayette, which destroyed a tennis club and damaged a home, forced the cancellation of a major fundraising event for Jewish Family & Community Services East Bay. Director Avi Rose sent an email to event attendees just two hours before the gala, JFCS’ largest fundraiser of the year, featuring radio host Peter Sagal.

“Ironically, many didn’t get the email, because their power was out,” he said. A number of attendees still showed up at the door for the gala, which JFCS is hoping to reschedule.

The Lafayette fire burned only a half-mile from Walnut Creek’s Congregation B’nai Tikvah, and about 2½ miles from Temple Isaiah.

Rabbi Cantor Jennie Chabon of B’nai Tikvah said the Sunday call to evacuate came just after 150 kids had left Sunday school. The on-site custodian was evacuated, but Chabon was horrified to realize the Torah scrolls were still inside.

“But at that point they’d blocked the road,” she said.

Chabon said it was a heartbreaking moment.

“A lot of us had texts going around that just said: Pray,” she said.

Luckily, the fire did not reach B’nai Tikvah and the evacuation order was rescinded later in the day. Temple Isaiah was not evacuated, either, although Rabbi Alissa Miller said she knew of congregants who were told to leave their homes on Sunday and were allowed back the same day.

San Francisco-based Jewish Family and Children’s Services, which covers Sonoma and Marin counties as well as the Peninsula, is working with disaster-relief organizations and accepting donations through its California Wildfires Disaster Fund at tinyurl.com/jfcs-wildfires.

Carol Appel, the Sonoma County concierge with the S.F.-based Jewish Community Federation, said the Federation was ready to work with Jewish organizations affected by the fires as needed.

“Two years ago the Federation swooped in right away” with fundraising efforts after the Tubbs Fire, she said. Those funds are being tapped into this week to subsidize a Nov. 1 Shabbat dinner at Beth Ami in Santa Rosa.

Appel said a number of evacuees in Sonoma County, including people who had received Federation help after the 2017 Tubbs Fire, were afraid they would find themselves back at square one.

“Residents who lost their homes and rebuilt have evacuated again,” she said. “They’re hoping and praying they don’t lose their second home.”

JCCs and synagogues around the region offered their support, in whatever ways they could. The Addison-Penzak JCC in Los Gatos announced in an email Monday that it would offer hot showers for those affected by the fire, as well as free charging and WiFi and a “power outage mini-camp” for children. Congregants from Kol Emeth in Palo Alto offered on Monday to host families from Congregation Beth Ami who were evacuated from Santa Rosa.

In Napa, Rabbi Niles Goldstein of Congregation Beth Shalom said he was staying in touch with his congregants in rural areas who were waiting to hear if they would be forced to leave.

“Yesterday and today I’m checking up on all of them,” he said. The main problem, he reported, appeared to be the power outages. The synagogue was fortunate to still have its lights on.

On Monday morning, people congregated at the synagogue, and in the rabbi’s office, to get some work done. “Which is great,” he said, “because that’s what a synagogue should do.”

Additional reporting by J. editor Sue Fishkoff, news editor Dan Pine and staff writer Maya Mirsky.

Gabe Stutman
Gabe Stutman

Gabe Stutman is the news editor of J. Follow him on Twitter @jnewsgabe.