Chronicles of a Northern California Wildfire Evacuee
By Cal Orey
August 20, 2021, It is Apocalyptic
Ash falls. Can’t see mountains. Tourists flooding town. It’s surreal. Looks like a nuclear winter. Ordered fourth air purifier. Headache, raspy throat, ears ache. Nowhere to go. Unhealthy air quality in surrounding towns. Current Air Quality: 231. “Caldor Fire, growing rapidly, forces Highway 50 closure” notes one newspaper headline.
I feel like it’s a monster headed into South Lake Tahoe. My biggest fear of a firestorm with one road out is coming true. Confirmed by credible sources in town -- there is no way out. Last night when the tourists left –they were told Hwy 50. was going to close -- it was reported "nightmarish" gridlock. Read: We will all be trapped if the wildfire reaches us. We're surrounded. Scared.
AUGUST 22, Midnight
Tahoe Daily Tribune: “Caldor Fire grows to 98K acres: More resources ordered to keep blaze away from Tahoe” … Online AirNOW.Gov air quality index reads 611 Hazardous! Evacuating tomorrow. The smoke is very unhealthy. Others are leaving too. Scared. Found a place – 6 hr. drive due to closed roads.
Called sibling. “We’re leaving tomorrow early afternoon. I’ll pay for the trip.” No hesitation. He was in denial but admits: “I see smoke in my living room.” Afterall, for months he, an intuitive, like me, said, “South Lake Tahoe is going to get hit this summer.” And I chose to evacuate early so we wouldn’t be caught in the chaos of a mandatory mass exodus.
A SAFE PLACE, SORT OF
AUGUST 23, 7:00 PM, Monday
The drive was calm. Zen kitty got car sick. Aussie dog happy to go. Clean air ahead! No more sneezing pooch. Arrived. We are now in a safe place. Hello Gilroy, a town I know for its garlic; and doing a past book signing. I chose a pet-friendly inn. It looked cozy with trees nestled around the outside. Note to self: Tent city next to the premises. Red flag but considering we are evacuees now how can I discriminate?
Inside the corner suite. It’s spacious with a king bed, sofa bed, one TV, coffee/tea maker, fridge, patio, and close to the door to let the dog do his business. Sibling is thinking vacation, “What can we do that’s fun?” I’m pondering, “This is survival” to verbal warnings: “Do not let Zen get out.” After all, my Siamese is a senior indoor-only super sensitive cat. First road trip. I do not want to lose my fur child.
AUGUST, 25, Wednesday
Reality hits. The Caldor Fire is out of control. Watching the news, A.M and P.M. is grueling. It is like watching a disaster movie but it is real-life. The monster firestorm is creeping closer and closer to South Lake Tahoe – my home for 22 years. The wildfire is less than 10 miles away. I call the neighbor who stayed behind in the hazardous air like so many others did. Yes, he is feeding my fish and watering the tree gardens. But the air quality is bad. Will he stay or will he go? I think he is in denial or optimistic. But my gut says the wildfire is going to hit home. Embers fly in the air; winds kick up at night. Is it an uphill battle? We don’t have enough firefighters. Locals are on edge.
AUGUST 27, Friday Morning
Are you kidding? My brother gave me the news. The inn has a policy. Guests with pets must leave after five days. The room will be cleaned and vacant for 24 hours. “Where are we going to go on a summer holiday weekend?” I asked. Displaced again. Uprooting the fur kids is unfair. The rule seems odd. My gut told me something didn’t ring true. Now we were homeless, too, like the Tent City people.
Saturday Night, Hello Los Gatos
Lady Luck. I scored an upstairs corner suite at a pet-friendly inn. I grew up here—an affluent area that makes me feel safe. The air is hazy from our fire at home but isn’t labeled unhealthy air. The room has superb views of trees and hills. We are happy, sort of. Two rooms, two TVs, a door between us and quiet. It is an oasis. Caveat: Zen has cystitis; so, do I. We don’t like change. Need to drink more water.
Week two: I do not want to leave kitty (potential loss of my home has left me vulnerable; putting chair against door as a safety precaution). No dining out. Living on Subway sandwiches: Vegetables, cheese, olives, whole grain bread. One night it’s too bland, another too spicy. Heartburn pays me a visit. Mornings? Inn to-go breakfast: Yogurt, cinnamon roll. Stuff mini fridge with survival food: Natural OJ, nuts, dried fruit, chocolate… Thank God for chamomile tea.
AUGUST 29, Tahoe Evacuations Are Happening
Broken sleep puts us in Zombie mode. Anxiety, stress, and “what ifs” as we watch the nightly news. The word is: The wildfire is less than five miles from the Lake Tahoe Basin. Like a poisonous snake coming straight for South Lake Tahoe. Residents are on alert to be ready to go. One highway out. Panic. Gridlock. Dangerous air. Why did locals wait? Nobody wants to go to a shelter, pay money for a hotel, sleep in a car. The haves leave, the have nots stay. And first responders and essential workers keep working. To make things worse, Covid-19 can spread easier in a wildfire environment we are told.
AUGUST 30, Monday Morning Mandatory Evacuation
Text from neighbor. His family is leaving before forced evacuations. “I guess the fire crept through the cracks,” he wrote. We were right. My fish, trees will die. Worse, our cabins (and my antique furniture, books/mags of 30 years; fave clothes gone); Our historical resort town may burn down – wiped out like Paradise north of us. Worse, the mayor said:” Prepare for the worst. We will rebuild.” Where will we move?
At night I call a bank to make a hefty credit card payment. In shock I say, “This is for the evacuation.” The phone rep is distant. Robotic. Dazed and confused I break down. I cry hysterically. No words. She took the payment. I don’t understand why some people can’t empathize with evacuees from a natural disaster. Nobody is immune.
SEPTEMBER 1, Tahoe and Stateline are Empty – Bears Roam Streets
The military arrived and more firefighters! Casinos at Stateline, NV close but open their doors to first responders. Bears roam the vacant streets in town. The wildfire is less than five miles away to ravaging South Lake Tahoe. I can feel the collective spirit of residents waiting, waiting, waiting. Will we have a home to go back to – or will we have to relocate?
Los Gatos inn moves us to downstairs; somebody had previously booked the suite. Separate rooms. Pros and cons. Twenty days with a sibling is challenging. I am Type A, he is Type B. The break is good. When we are together, we talk about moving to Utah, Arizona… We only brought basic clothes, computers, the dog and cat. We didn’t really think we’d lose our home. Did we?
Speaking of home, nobody lives above me. On Saturday evening I hear movement. Earthquake? No. Dinosaurs! Guests on the second-floor walk; and I hear every step they make like in that popular dinosaur movie. On the upside, when I take Skyler, my protective canine outside -- no stairs, inn electronic cards to get into the pool area and out. So, no more boot camp exercise for dog and me.
SOS! More Firefighters, Please!!!
Been posting nonstop on social media: “SOS! South Lake Tahoe needs more firefighters and the military!” And they finally came fighting to save our town from burning down. Some residents returned home by September 7 despite the bad air quality. I wait…September 12 we go home. As whooped as I was, I tossed all toxic air exposed food, hosed off ash on the deck, and inside the cabin. My fish survived 10 days without food; lost one and one tree. I listened to more than 100 phone messages -- from concerned people “Are you okay?” The “Evacuate Now…” words from the El Dorado sheriff greeted me – and I grinned because leaving sooner than later alleviated me hearing the orders like I did for Angora Fire in 2007.
OCTOBER 8, I Survived a Natural Disaster
Today, I enjoy the changing color of autumn leaves on trees surrounding the cabin. The air is excellent quality; poor air forecast for the weekend since the sequoias south of us are burning in another California Sierra wildfire. I had a snake nightmare last night and it was trying to attack my cat, Zen.
In the afternoon, I pulled down the outdoor living room blind for a warm, fall effect. Ash fell to the deck. A sobering memory of Caldor Fire and how our community survived. A heartfelt thanks to the fearless firefighters. Tahoe strong locals, and the grace of God. We defeated Mother nature’s wrath this time. But was this nightmare the new normal?
(Published in Oracle 20/20 Magazine, November issue; courtesy photo of fire engines in smoke-filled sky from Bill Rozak)
FYI Facts: Caldor Fire 2021
· The wildfire began on August 14. The cause is unknown but climate change helped the fire cross the Sierra Nevada.
· Governor Gavin Newsom declared a state of emergency for El Dorado County.
· Nearly 1000 structures were destroyed, no deaths, the clarity and ecosystem of the Lake are affected.
· Lake Tahoe registered the unhealthiest air quality in the nation due to the Caldor and Dixie Fires surrounding the El Dorado, Alpine, and Amador counties in the Sierra Nevada mountains of California.
· The dangerous air quality has both short-term and long-term effects on humans, pets, and wildlife.
· It was estimated that the Caldor Fire will be fully contained by mid-October.