Medical volunteers go above and beyond during Santa Rosa firestorm

By Kathryn Hecht

A photo of Peggy Goebel, shown with Rene Steinhauer, center, and State Senator Mike McGuire.

Peggy Goebel 
is shown with Rene Steinhauer, center, and State Senator Mike McGuire.

American Red Cross volunteer and Windsor resident Peggy Goebel had barely unpacked from her deployment to Hurricane Harvey when she was evacuated to the Santa Rosa Veterans Memorial Building in the early hours of October 9. She was one of hundreds of area residents, fleeing wildfires, who were streaming into the facility.

But with the raging flames, ash, and heat baring down on that part of Sonoma County from both the Tubbs fire to the north and the Nuns fire to the east, Peggy sprang into action, marshaling decades of nursing experience and recently renewed training with the Red Cross.

“Give me a vest,” she shouted to the shelter manager as the Red Cross pulled up with their relief trailers and supplies. “I know what to do.”

Peggy naturally stepped in as the medical lead on site. Aided by key Red Cross volunteers from the local California Northwest Chapter, she quickly assessed the situation, dispatching volunteers via ambulance to Costco for every over-the-counter staple they could find. She instructed the vets who knew their building’s kitchen to put on coffee and keep it brewing through the night. And she watched as hundreds of additional evacuees arrived in the next few hours in various states of distress.

“We started our efforts with many acute-care clients from the evacuated Kaiser Hospital, three Kaiser emergency doctors, and three Kaiser nurses,” recalls Peggy. “We received evacuees from several local skilled nursing facilities and residential care facilities. We soon realized that the Veterans center was full of various degrees of medically fragile or medically needy individuals.”

Together with Dr. Joe Clendenin, an experienced Disaster Action Team Red Cross volunteer, Peggy organized and managed the setup of two additional medical shelters and transferred evacuees accordingly. Fairgrounds Grace Pavilion took the “walking well” victims and Kraft Hall housed evacuees with their animals. But perhaps most impressively, Peggy oversaw the arrival and shifts of approximately 600 local volunteering doctors and nurses in the days leading up to the arrival of Red Cross national teams.

“We cared for more than 1,000 people without one loss of life, providing excellent medical and nursing care, and proactively treated many issues that could have sent people to the local hospitals,” reflects Peggy. “I have participated in many relief efforts, nationally and internationally, but this one was different. These were my people, my family, my friends, my colleagues, and my students. This one was personal.”

Peggy becomes increasingly animated when discussing her experience, exclaiming how generously people gave of their time and talents. She remembers how Santa consistently showed up in the nick of time with equipment, cash cards, and food. And she marvels at how well everyone worked together to take care of each other. “It was … extraordinary,” she sighed. “Beyond extraordinary.”

Those two words — beyond extraordinary — could just as easily apply to the response of Peggy Goebel and the incredible volunteer medical team during this past fall’s wildfires in Northern California.