By Stephanie Lipcius Palko
This week’s trip to the famed wine country of northern California was supposed to be a leisurely vacation through the idyllic countryside.
Instead, travelers from Cecil County had to run for their lives in the middle of the night when their hotel was surrounded by flames during this week’s devastating California wildfires.
“There are 12 of us out here, from Cecil County, Delaware and Pennsylvania,” Cathy Parsons of Best Vacations in Elkton told the “Cecil Guardian” in a phone interview this week.
After their second day touring the wine country, the group settled into their hotel in Santa Rosa.
“We weren’t aware there were any fires around us,” Ken Parsons said.
Unknown to them, a wildfire, fed by dry brush and high winds, had grown from an initial report of 200 acres to 25,000 acres and it was burning rapidly toward the town and the Best Western hotel.
“The winds were like 65 miles per hour,” Cathy said.
Some people at the hotel began to smell smoke and were told by staff that the fire was four miles away.
With winds blowing, the fire was roaring along at a rapid rate.
Cathy said she was uneasy and began texting with Cecil County resident John Murray of State Line Liquors, who was helping direct the tour group.
It was around 2 a.m. and Murray texted that he had just been told to evacuate the hotel.
Cathy said the fire emergency happened so rapidly. There was no time to pack. No time to pull on clothing. She grabbed her phone and purse. Ken grabbed a backpack.
Many guests at the hotel, awakened by the evacuation order, were obviously shocked.
“People were walking out of their room in a daze,” Cathy said, noting that while people have days to prepare for a hurricane, wildfires give people only minutes to react.
The problem for the travel group was that they had no vehicles.
They also were unsure as to where they should go.
Cathy and Ken described the scene outside of the hotel as being surreal.
“There was a hedge near the hotel and it was on fire,” Ken said. “The grass was on fire. The telephone poles next to the parking lot were on fire – which was the craziest thing I’ve ever seen.”
There were huge embers being blown horizontally in the high winds and Ken said when he looked at Cathy, he could see the flames in the background and the embers all around them. He saw one large ember bounce off his wife’s leg.
There was no easy escape from the front of the hotel.
“We walked around behind the hotel where there was a Kmart and a parking lot near a street,” Ken said.
Cathy said cars were going down the street with some drivers looking confused.
Two cars stopped for them. One car that was filled with people, gave them water and scribbled an address on a piece of cardboard, inviting them to go to that location if they found a ride.
The people in the second vehicle had some room and the Parsons got into the car and were driven a few miles to a private school where one of the vehicle occupants worked.
They were able to have some tea and to charge phones, Cathy said. The school was on a hillside and they could see the extent of the wildfire as it destroyed neighborhoods.
An hour later, the area around the school had to be evacuated and the Parsons said they found themselves, along with hundreds of other fire refugees, in a huge shopping center parking lot.
The couple said there were people looking for other people while others were crying and lamenting how they had lost everything and had no idea what to do next.
The Target store opened around 8 a.m. and Cathy went in to purchase some clothing.
She said she was startled to see how many other people needed to trade their pajamas for real clothing to face the day.
As the travel group got into contact with each other, they had to determine what to do next. The Parson’s daughter, Jenn, was at their Best Vacations travel business in Cecil County and got the group reservations further south from the wildfires.
Cathy said having Jenn available to handle this unexpected problem showed the value of working with a travel agency.
The local travel group was not alone in looking for housing. When their group got rooms in a new hotel, there had been 90 rooms available at 7 a.m. By 8:30 a.m., that hotel was filled, Cathy said.
As they get back together, travel group members are sharing their stories. Some had to wear pajamas for the entire day after their wildfire escape. One couple was able to grab half of their clothing as they ran from their hotel room.
The group still plans to continue their California trip, which runs until Saturday. They have changed the itinerary to a more southern route and will still visit some wineries, adding other destinations.
Cathy said Murray has been a great help in reworking the schedule, noting that he has long-term friendships with many of the vineyard/winery owners and is worried about their safety and the extent of damage.
Ken and Cathy Parsons said the experience makes them more aware of the devastation of these emergency situations and the need for all of us to donate time or money to assist those in need.
While they have no confirmation, Ken assumes their Santa Rosa hotel burned to the ground, along with their clothing.
Cathy said she teased her husband that she had been wanting him to cut down on the clothing in his closet. Ken said the clothing he brought on their trip were the items he wanted to keep!
The day after their escape from the wildfire, Cathy said there was a 4.4 magnitude earthquake in southern California.
She said she didn’t even notice it.