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‘No one is ready for it.’ Fleeing a raging fire amid the coronavirus pandemic

Nurses Jenn Ellis, Blanca Ramirez, and  Bindhi Millar walk the parking lot of the Vacaville Community Center
Nurses Jenn Ellis, Blanca Ramirez and Bindhi Millar walk the parking lot of the Vacaville Community Center checking on people who were displaced by the Hennessy fire.
(Kent Nishimura / Los Angeles Times)

Lloyd Broughton, 78, evacuated with little warning after a firetruck came up his road north of Vacaville at 3 a.m. Wednesday.

Along with his wife, Anne, 73, and daughter Kristine, 35, they gathered their seven rescue cats and packed two cars.

“No one is ready for it,” he said of having to leave in the middle of a pandemic.

All three were having breathing problems — Kristine has asthma, and her parents both use CPAP breathing machines.

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With a heavy layer of ash falling, they were already coughing and having trouble breathing, Kristine said.

Tonight they hope to go to a motel if they can’t return home.

Though they aren’t too concerned about the coronavirus, Kristine said the shelter was not yet set up to screen for the contagion.

“They just got in thermometers but are out of batteries,“ she said.

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Residents had little time to grab pets or possessions early Wednesday as winds raged from the northwest, pushing the LNU Lightning Complex into this Solano County community of 100,000, forcing evacuations, burning homes and leaving a layer of soot on the ground.

The fire, which has burned more than 46,000 acres, is composed of at least major three zones in Napa, Sonoma, Solano, Yolo and Lake counties. The most serious blaze in the complex appears to be the Hennessey fire, which began Monday morning on the eastern edge of Lake Hennessey in Napa County and marched into Solano and Yolo counties Wednesday morning, forcing residents to flee.

As of Wednesday morning, 50 structures had been destroyed, 50 more had been damaged and 1,900 were threatened, fire officials said.

Alissa Widmer was walking her Labradoodle, Lucy, with her son, Liam, 8, in the parking lot of one of the local evacuation centers on Wednesday.

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Her family had used their government stimulus check to buy a generator earlier this year, which was now running next to their RV. Widmer was concerned that the noise of it might bother others but was relieved to have it. They evacuated at 3 a.m., alerted when their power went off.

In the dark of a country house — Whitmer packed her two children, two cats and the dog and grabbed family heirlooms before heading out.

She said other friends have already lost their home nearby, and she does not know if hers is still standing. The kids had just started school virtually on Monday and she said, “we had just felt like we were getting established, now this is a whole new wrench.“

Wednesday afternoon, Vacaville Fire Protection District Battalion Chief Mike Duggan stood in front of a substation in the hills outside of town, where fire had burned on three sides to within 20 feet of the tin structure.

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Duggan said the fire moved so quickly the night before that it jumped two ridges, forcing unplanned evacuations and an “all hands on deck” situation that left him battling alongside crews.

“It’s kind of one of those things when you lose track of time,” he said.

Duggan went door-to-door warning people to get out, he said, and was met by surprise by many who went to bed thinking the fire was far away.

“So did we,” Duggan said. “It was very difficult to get people out, because they didn’t know.”


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