'The kindness of strangers': DL women caught in California wildfires are home safe, looking to help
Just two days into a girls' trip to wine country, eight women (six of whom are from Detroit Lakes) were forced to evacuate their AirBnB, the wide- and fast-spreading California fires that erupted Sunday evening threatening their lives. After a narrow escape and only home safe since late Monday (Oct. 9), the women are still shaken from their experience, but they have already begun helping, hoping to raise money for the "angels" who helped them escape the flames.
Chelsea Manke, a Detroit Lakes woman on the trip, says they had hunkered down for the evening Sunday, completely unaware of the flames growing nearer to their doorstep.
"A couple of the girls mentioned that they maybe smelled fire that evening, but being from Minnesota, we didn't think about that (a possible wildfire) because people have bonfires," she said.
One of the women, Mary Beehler, headed off to bed and, when she opened her bedroom window, she heard a man yelling "Get out! Fire! Get out!"
Beehler yelled back to him, "Be right there!" afraid if she didn't respond, he wouldn't wait for them.
Little did she know, the man, John Shockley, was there to help them evacuate. He had been heading back to his home to gather mementos when he noticed the lights on in what he knew to be a rental property. What he didn't see was a car in the driveway, so he assumed—correctly—that the women inside did not have a way to escape the wildfire.
"Everybody basically grabbed their phone or purse, whatever they had right by them," Manke recalled, adding that they didn't even have time to grab shoes on the way out. "It was a matter of us being out of that house in a minute."
They hustled, immediately going into survival mode, but they didn't understand the gravity of the situation until outside, where Manke says walls of flames flickered not 30 yards away, growing closer as the wind blew the flames toward their driveway.
Shockley called his wife, Kim, to come to the AirBnB, and the eight women squeezed into the Shockley's two vehicles (a Mercedes Coupe and a Chevy Tahoe) alongside the Shockley's two great danes, heading for safety.
"He (John) had to drive around flames, and fallen trees, and crazy drives," recalled Manke. "The heat from the flames felt inside of the car during our escape was frightening."
The Shockleys drove the women to a safe place, a hotel in Santa Rosa, Calif. and, the couple left to go help others. However, it was only a matter of four hours before the women were facing another evacuation.
"We evacuated the hotel to only stand in front of it, not knowing what to do or what was going on," Manke noted.
By this time, it was about 6 a.m., Monday, and the women were again stranded, not sure which way to head for safety, like many others.
"It was touch-and-go," said Manke, recalling how there wasn't really anyone in charge telling them what to do.
One person would say they were safe where they were and, if they asked another, they would get a completely different response, a nervous "you need to evacuate now."
"For the most part, everyone seemed confused," said Manke. "We would watch people go to their cars, come back out of their cars, go to their cars, come back out of their cars."
After enough confusion, Manke and her group decided to leave the hotel, to get to the airport and fly home as soon as possible, but there was no transportation—no drivers were going to work in the midst of a wildfire. Car rental businesses were beginning to open, but there were no workers at those places either—not that the women had the most-effective cell service to call and rent a car. Manke says her phone was the only one that worked, and she used it to call her husband, who was able to check the status of the fires online.
Her husband told her they were surrounded by fires, north, east, south, and west, nowhere was safe, and all of the major roads heading out of the blaze were closed.
"That was probably the worst moment," she said. "Just looking at the map and not knowing how we were going to get out. We could see smoke with the sun coming up, but we didn't know how close it was."
Thankfully, one of the interstates eventually opened up; and, miraculously, using an app, the women were able to locate an Uber driver, a man who was in the midst of evacuating his own home who stopped to pick up the helpless group. However, they needed two cars and couldn't locate another Uber driver, so they used the Lyft app to locate another.
Manke says they called both drivers, dubious that they were going to actually show up, but they did. They drove five to 10 mph in evacuee traffic down the interstate towards the airport; a normally hour-and-a-half drive stretched to three hours.
"It was quite a feeling as we drove south towards San Francisco," said Manke. "We saw the hillsides on fire and endless black smoke."
She says the interstate heading south, to safety, was packed with people escaping, and the interstate heading north, back towards the fire, was packed with police cars, fire trucks, and other emergency vehicles.
It wasn't long before arriving at the airport that the women were able to switch their flights and head back to safety, back to Minnesota, ending roughly 24 hours of terror in survival mode.
Now, back home and safe, the women have set up a GoFundMe page—gofundme.com/angels-of-sonoma-county-wildfires—to raise money for the couple who turned away from their house, filled with their lives, to help eight strangers.
Manke says after just one day the page has had an amazing turnout, raising over $2,000 so far.
The women have been in touch with John and Kim since arriving home, and they still don't know if their house is safe or not. The couple hasn't been allowed to return to the neighborhood, as it's been evacuated. Though, they're pretty sure the house is gone after a shift in wind Wednesday morning caused the terrible fires to grow even worse.
ABC News reported Wednesday that the "fire has charred 7,626 acres in Sonoma County (the area where the women were staying) since Sunday night; it was just 1 percent contained Wednesday morning."
As for the AirBnB, as of Tuesday morning it had not been hit, but the Wednesday-morning shift spelled trouble. That homeowner also hasn't been back to his residence. Whether it's gone up in flames is unknown.
Manke says the sight of the flames continues to run through her head, and she wants to do something to help the couple who is still there suffering through it, still confused about whether they will have a home to return to or not.
"It's the most shocking sight I've ever seen," she said. "Something that you just can't get out of your head."
Christine Hvidston, another woman on the trip, agreed with Manke, saying now that they've had time to reflect, they are shocked they were able to get out safely.
"Our survival came down to the kindness of strangers," she said.