Petaluma, California – The presence of the California Army National Guard was enough for Deborah L. Dalton to put things into perspective. As thousands of people flee the Northern California fires, hundreds landed at the Cavanagh Recreation Center’s 12,000 square-foot facility where Dalton serves as executive director. The center quickly became an evacuation site.
The facility normally caters to at-risk youth, where caring adults mentor youngsters into becoming better people, but Dalton and her 12-member administrative staff had to shift gears on the fly. Teachers became hostesses, staffers became waiters and janitors. Bus after bus rolled into the compound, unloading fire victims. Cots and sleeping essentials filled the Cavanagh facility beyond its capacity.
“Oh Lord, it became so overwhelming,” Dalton explained. “We’ve never done this before. We’re not trained to be an evacuation center. I could have cried until [the California National Guard] rolled up in [their] humvees.”
Her years mentoring troubled youth kicked in, she said. As evacuees settled in, the potential for disorder filled the center. Dalton noticed tension among the outsiders — young adults, in particular — and the task of avoiding conflict was going to be left in the hands of the center’s staff.
Just outside, several California Army National Guard vehicles pulled up. Local authorities were also on hand, but they are supporting hundreds of other sites. So members of the California Army National Guard’s 270th and 870th Military Police companies stepped forward to help. For several days, the soldiers and staff have worked together to uphold a system where order and peace overrule the fear and unknown.
‘We’re Here to Help’
Dalton said the MPs have been a big help. “Now we know where to route people. Now we have a better idea of what to do. I love you people, and I’m a fan,” she said of the guardsmen.
The soldiers work around the clock and don’t just provide security. They help transport food and other items, they move, load and unload vehicles and they talk to the victims. Many of the guardsmen are bilingual. Some guardsmen, such as Army Staff Sgt. Timothy Barrera, with the 270th MP Company, play games with the kids.
“We can’t break our rules, but if there are things that we can help to get done, we do it,” Barrera said. “There’s a really good feeling here. People keep offering us stuff, but we keep telling them, ‘We’re here to help you.’”
Raging fires in Northern California have killed more than 30 people, scorched hundreds of thousands of acres of land, and displaced several thousands, per the California Forestry and Fire Protection website in late September and early October. Several of the California National Guard’s military police units were assigned to assist victims and supporters at various shelters, centers and churches in Northern California cities.
“You know what it is? I think it’s just the fact that they’re here gives us peace of mind,” Dalton said. “We just weren’t prepared for something like this. This center has never seen anything like it. With [the guardsmen] here, now we can concentrate on what needs to be done.”