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California wildfires: deja vu for some evacuees

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Petaluma (United States) (AFP)

Elizar Lopez lost his home in California's devastating wildfires two years ago. After being forced to flee a new blaze with his family he is hoping not to suffer the same fate again.

Lopez is one of more than 180,000 people who have been ordered to evacuate their homes in Sonoma County north of San Francisco because of the wind-fueled "Kincade Fire."

"I'm very worried because of the high winds," the 36-year-old Lopez told AFP after arriving in Petaluma from Healdsburg, a town of around 11,000 in Sonoma County which is under evacuation orders.

"We haven't recovered emotionally from two years ago and economically we were barely getting things back up," he said.

Lopez, a construction worker, said his family had more time to prepare to flee this time -- although not by much.

"We had an hour to get ready," he said. "The way it happened last time, we had to evacuate last minute. It was very tough."

Ricardo Alvarez, also a construction worker, lost his apartment two years ago.

"We didn't think it would happen again so soon," he said.

The Kincade Fire has been burning for five days and has destroyed 66,231 acres (26,802 hectares). California's governor declared a statewide emergency on Sunday.

In Petaluma, emergency shelters have been set up to house evacuees, many of whom, like Lopez and Alvarez, fled the 2017 fire which left 22 people dead and ravaged an entire neighborhood in the city of Santa Rosa.

"People are starting to think it's routine," said Kathy Amundson, a 67-year-old retiree who fled the town of Windsor with her 90-year-old mother, Joy.

"So we're better prepared but it's scary each time," Amundson said.

Her ailing mother is bed-ridden and had been discharged from hospital shortly before they were forced to flee.

"It was complicated to get my mom in the wheelchair and then into the car," Amundson said.

- 'Dance' -

Adriane Hatkoff, a 70-year-old art teacher for adults, said the evacuation had been "very orderly" overall.

"It was like a dance, how they funnel all these people in a way that avoids congestion," Hatkoff said. "It was very peaceful. I'm impressed."

Aly Cresci is the secretary of a community center hosting evacuees.

"This time we had time to plan," Cresci said. "We knew who takes care of what, the volunteers, the food... But it's weird. I'm having deja vu. I don't like it. We did it all two years ago."

The deadly 2017 fire and another last year which killed 86 people have forced the California authorities to urge people to pay greater heed to evacuation warnings.

"We're making sure evacuation is going smoothly and people are taking it seriously," California Governor Gavin Newsom told AFP during a visit to a shelter in Petaluma.

"After five years of historic drought, and an historic rainfall, something is going on," Newsom said.

"If people have any doubt around science, climate change, come to California and observe evidence of this reality," the governor added.

While some evacuees are being housed by family or friends, others are in shelters and some are sleeping in their cars.

Gordon Stubbe, a 73-year-old retiree who helps out on a sheep ranch in Bodega, fled with his cat, Punk.

"It was very windy," Stubbe said. "There was a lot of ash. All the smoke was blowing right at us."

"I got a call from the neighbors at three in the morning," he added. "The sheep will have to fend for themselves, couldn't bring them out here."

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