When Pamela Voyles got the knock on her door to leave, she already had a bag ready.
Pamela ticks off the supplies she had packed: “I had copies of certain pictures in my bag. I had emergency water, energy bars. I was more prepared than most people because I had been through fire before.”
I first met Pamela at an evacuation shelter at the Finley Community Center in Santa Rosa. She’s in her late 50s, with a slight limp and dark purple hair. She’s been staying there with her service dog, Blue.
Things Were Getting Better
In the fall of 2015, Pamela was living on Cobb Mountain in Lake County. Things were looking up for her. After a few run-ins with the law, she left an abusive relationship and got sober. She went through a rehabilitation program and cleared her record. She was managing some of her health issues; lung disease and chronic pain from an incident in 2000 in which she says someone attacked and robbed her.
“I’ve been in pain ever since,” Pamela tells me. “I had to teach myself how to walk all over. They wanted to put me in a wheelchair. And I was like, ‘nuh-uh, I’m not going.’ ”
Pamela was just starting to get back on her feet. But then, one September afternoon, a fire broke out nearby. She had 20 minutes to gather her things and leave. By the time the Valley Fire was contained, almost 2,000 buildings were gone, including her apartment.
“I had no place to go back to,” she explains. “There just wasn’t anything that I could afford up there at the time, or housing. There wasn’t enough housing for people. And so that’s why I came down to Santa Rosa.”
Homeless in Santa Rosa
Pamela spent most of two years in and out of Santa Rosa homeless shelters. She’s now bracing herself for the psychological aftermath of having to flee from flames yet again.
“It just brought all those feelings and those flashbacks of the Valley Fire,” she says sadly.
Pamela also knows how hard it is to find housing after a fire, especially without a job — she’s on disability. Shelter workers helped her save money and rent an apartment in Santa Rosa. She says she must have put in 30 applications to different places.
After a long wait, she got a federal Section 8 voucher and found a one-bedroom apartment. She’s so grateful for all the support that she now volunteers with shelters, The Living Room and The Rose. Her favorite place to help out is Homeless With Pets.
Pamela moved into her new place about seven months ago. It was an adjustment.
“You have to get used to being back in your home again,” she tells me. “It’s like, oh, I can walk around the corner and go to the bathroom. I don’t have to drive to a certain building and go. Or, I can take a shower whenever I want to. I can change my clothes whenever I want to.”
Waiting for News
When I talk to Pamela at the shelter, she’s waiting for news about her home. It’s just across the highway from the Fountaingrove neighborhood where the fire consumed hundreds of buildings.
Later that night, she calls me and tells me that she’s allowed to visit her place during the day as long as she’s out by the sunset curfew. So, the next morning we head over.
Visiting Pamela’s Home
Pamela’s apartment complex is in good shape. Her place is cozy, and filled with knickknacks. There are boxes piled in corners — she says she hadn’t had time to fully unpack yet. We walk around, inspecting her bedroom, the bathroom, the kitchen.
She has water, but still no electricity. Pamela shows me her jewelry table, which takes up most of one wall of her apartment.
“I do a lot of crafts,” she says, gesturing to the table. “I make owls out of pinecones. Before the Valley Fire I had picked up a lot of the pinecones before all the trees burnt.”
Fire Victims Face Tough Times Ahead
Two years after the Valley Fire, Lake County is still trying to rebuild. There was an estimated $1.5 billion in losses. Like Pamela, people left the area for better housing, though it’s not clear exactly how many.
Now, Santa Rosa will likely face the same problems. The fire destroyed 4 percent of the city’s housing stock in the midst of a regional housing crisis.
And thousands of people will be looking for a new place to call home.
“I don’t know exactly what they’re going through, but I know what I went through,” Pamela says. “So, I help wherever I can help.”
Pamela is back in her apartment now. She’s still waiting for the gas to be hooked up again. She’s grateful that her place and all her things are still here. And she empathizes with those who lost everything.
“I feel for them,” Pamela says, hand to her chest. “When I first went through the fire, it was confusing, devastating, mentally, emotionally and physically.”
Pamela is one of the lucky ones — this time. But for anybody who struggles to pay the rent, anybody who’s more vulnerable because they don’t have family support or have lost their job, and for the almost 3,000 homeless living in Sonoma County, life will likely be harder.
These fires have long-lasting ramifications for the people who had homes — but also for the ones who didn’t.