PETALUMA, Calif. -- The presence alone 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 -- especially those in Sonoma County -- hundreds quickly landed at Dalton's 12,000 square-foot facility in Petaluma, which quickly became an evacuation site. Normally, Dalton's Cavanagh Recreation Center caters to at-risk youth, where caring adults mentor youngsters into becoming better people.
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 started trekking into the compound, unloading fire victims. Cots and sleeping essentials filled the Cavanagh facility beyond its required 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 you guys (the California Army National Guard) rolled up in your Humvees."
Her years of experience mentoring troubled youth kicked in to high gear. As evacuees settled in, the potential for disorder filled the center. Dalton noticed tension among the outsiders -- young adults, in particular -- and avoiding conflict was going to be left in her hands, along with her staff.
"We're only women here," Dalton added.
Just outside, several California Army National Guard vehicles pulled up. Local authorities were also on hand, but they were strapped supporting hundreds of other scenarios. So members of the California Army National Guard's 270th and 870th Military Police companies stepped forward to give Dalton and her crew a hand. For several days now, they've worked a system where order and peace overrule the fear and unknown.
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."
The Army National Guard members work around the clock, and not just providing security. They carry food and other items into the facility. They move, load and unload vehicles. They talk to the victims, and many of the Army National Guard members are bilingual. Some Army National Guard members, such as the 270th's Staff Sgt. Timothy Barrera, go as far as to play games with 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 31 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 Army 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 about the California Army National Guard members. "We just weren't prepared for something like this. This center has never seen anything like it. With them (the Army National Guard members) here, now we can concentrate on what needs to be done."