GLEN ELLEN, Calif. – At a place where people give a helping hand, the California Army National Guard provided its open arms for support.
During one of the last missions prior to the Cal Guard's deactivation from the 2017 Northern California wildfires, approximately two dozen Soldiers unloaded boxes and crates that will allow the Sonoma Developmental Center (SDC) to return to operations. Inside an open box were picture frames, each portraying present and past residents of this facility, which takes care of people with developmental and intellectual disabilities.
"Make sure you don't drop that (box)," says Sgt. Carrie Bautista of the Cal Guard's 340th Brigade Sustainment Battalion, to his team. "Those are important memories."
Everyone in the pictures is smiling. Likewise, every Guard member is doing the same as they haul boxes, furniture, bedding, and more into one of the care homes. For about a week they've swept floors, mopped smoke-tainted walls and ceilings, cut grass, and moved even more equipment from one storage area into the center's buildings. This came shortly after a wildfire scorched this small town and crept just a few hundred meters from the facility's front doorstep.
"We couldn't have done this without the help of the Cal Guard," said Aleana Carreon, SDC executive director. "They have been so polite and so generous to our staff and to our residents. They've been amazing since the day they got here."
The center is one of four state-run facilities, but it's the only one that was severely threatened by wildfires that destroyed 6,000-plus buildings and structures in Sonoma, Napa, and Solano counties. For two weeks, almost 200 disabled residents evacuated their comforts and relocated to shelters as far away as Dixon and Auburn "due to the air quality," said Jorge Fernandez, SDC assistant executive director. "They didn't have to wear (respiratory) masks in those cities."
The center reopened, but it had to erase the smoke stench and fire residue for the residents. Carreon solicited the Cal Guard's help and the Soldiers came through, she proudly declared.
"Everything we have asked them to do, they did it without hesitation and without questioning," she added. "We had so much to do to reopen this place, and again, we couldn't have done it without the Guard's help. They've been so respectful to the people who live here."
"They've been amazing. They've been remarkable," added Fernandez.
The 340th took the helm of this operation, assisted by members of the 1040th Quartermaster Company. The units were part of the 49th Military Police Brigade's task force that activated nearly 2,000 troops at the peak of the fires.
"For some of these people, this is the only place they've known for their entire lives. We're helping them move back into their homes," said 340th's Chief Warrant Officer 3 Benjamin Joyette. "We're always willing to do our part to help out with the evacuation efforts. Whatever we need to do."
Cal Guard members cared so much about this facility that two Soldiers, both engineers, created a gift that was presented to Carreon and her staff. Lt. Col. Eric W. Sharyer, commander of the 185th Military Police Battalion, presented them with the item displaying the 49th MP patch.
"This is something we'll remember and proudly display on our walls," Carreon said.
On the walls, next to the picture frames of beautiful, smiling disabled residents who are back home.