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Some South Lake Tahoe Evacuees Wait Out The Caldor Fire In Reno

Jose Mora is crouching down between two SUVs. He has a serious expression on his face. He’s holding a black and tan chihuahua in one hand and putting his other arm around a smiling, tan pit bull with just one ear sticking up.
Lucia Starbuck
KUNR Public Radio
South Lake Tahoe local Jose Mora was relocated from the American Red Cross evacuation center at the Carson City Community Center to the Reno-Sparks Convention Center with his family and two dogs, Lady and Woody, on Sept. 1, 2021.

The American Red Cross has set up several evacuation centers in Northern Nevada to help evacuees fleeing the Caldor and Dixie Fires. Some have had to move around to more than one shelter so far this week.

By Monday, tens of thousands of people in South Lake Tahoe, California, were forced to leave their homes. Many of them landed across the border in Nevada, in communities like Carson City, Gardnerville and Reno.

It’s been quite a journey for Shelly Lavars. She has mobility issues and doesn’t have transportation. When law enforcement knocked on her door to get her to leave, she didn’t have a way out. So they called for an ambulance to transport her to Carson City.

“I moved to South Lake Tahoe in 1986. I raised three children in South Lake Tahoe. It’s my home. It was really a bit terrifying leaving in the ambulance when I could see all the smoke out the back window,” Lavars said.

After arriving at the Carson City Community Center, Lavars ran into her neighbor Steve Bloom. After the ordeal, they described what it was like to see a familiar face.

“When you’re in a gymnasium with 100 people, who are all kind of wound up from all of this, and you lay eyes on somebody that you know, and you know when they see you, it’s like a big drink of water when you’re dying of thirst,” Lavars said.

“The only thing everyone in the room had in common was that we were all evacuated from South Lake Tahoe,” Bloom said.

There’s a hand-drawn sign held up via blue painter’s tape on one of two glass doors that reads, “This is West Entrance. Carson City go to East Entrance Loading Dock 12.” On the other glass door, there’s a piece of paper that says masks are required.
Credit Lucia Starbuck / KUNR Public Radio
KUNR Public Radio
A sign outside the American Red Cross evacuation center at the Reno-Sparks Convention Center in Reno, Nev., for wildfire evacuees relocated from the Carson City sites on Sept. 1, 2021.

But they didn’t get to stay for long. Barely a day in, the duo was uprooted again. On Wednesday, the American Red Cross moved all of the evacuees from the two Carson City centers and some from the Gardnerville site to the Reno-Sparks Convention Center.

“Because it’s easier for us to take care of as many people as possible under one roof, as opposed to caring for people in one, two, three, four locations at once,” Steve Walsh with the American Red Cross said.

About 90% of the work is done by volunteers. Lavars said the help she received in the last few days has made her see the community in a new light.

“I brought my son to Reno to get his suit for his proms, you know, those kind of things. These are our neighbors, but you don’t realize what that means until something like this,” Lavars said.

Also relocated from the Carson City site was 37-year-old Jose Mora. He was with his family members and two dogs — a pit bull and chihuahua. But he didn’t make it inside because the convention center doesn’t allow pets.

“We were bummed out because we’re not gonna leave them. You know what I mean? Like, they’re our family,” Mora said.

When we spoke in the parking lot, Mora was still struggling over where to go next with his family and pets. Along with them, he grabbed photographs, medicine and important documents before leaving South Lake Tahoe. But for him, leaving Tahoe was heartbreaking.

“We left all the memories all around the lake, you know, ’cause I used to take my kids to snowboard, we took them to the beach in the summer,” Mora said.

Also in the parking lot of the convention center was Gael Von Lackum. She was sitting in her car that’s packed to the brim with her belongings. She lives near Stateline and left after law enforcement came to her door.

A photo from the outside of a car’s front passenger window, looking into the car. Gael Von Lackum is sitting in the driver’s seat. She’s wearing a sun hat and has a blanket and book on her lap.
Credit Lucia Starbuck / KUNR Public Radio
KUNR Public Radio
Gael Von Lackum tried to decompress after her first night at the American Red Cross evacuation site at the Reno-Sparks Convention Center in Reno, Nev., on Sept. 1. She evacuated her home near Stateline, Calif., due to the threat of the Caldor Fire.

“Knock knock. Police came by and said ‘Please, ma’am, you know, you’re kind of the last one here,’ ” Von Lackum said.

She left for Reno on Tuesday. That drive usually takes about an hour, but Von Lackum said she was on the road for five.

“I’ve been nervous before, very nervous. And I’ve been exhausted before, very exhausted. But I can’t [remember], you know, I’m very old now, but I don’t remember the combination before,” Von Lackum said.

There were large black trash bags strapped to the roof of Von Lackum’s car. She’s escaped a wildfire before. When she lived in Santa Rosa, the Sonoma Complex Fire in 2017 took everything from her. Because of that past experience, she decided quickly what to bring with her.

“So I ended up just kind of like throwing everything that I wouldn’t want to burn into bags, strapping it up there, throwing it in there. Honestly, I can’t even find my purse,” Von Lackum said.

Like many of the other evacuees, Von Lackum is anxious to get back home, but it’s not clear at this time when it will be safe for them to return.

According to a spokesperson with CAL FIRE, more than 50,000 people from California and Nevada remain evacuated due to the Caldor Fire, threatening more than 32,000 structures. Governor Steve Sisolak signed an emergency declaration on Monday to ensure that resources go toward helping those affected by the Caldor Fire and those fighting the blaze.

Lucia Starbuck is a corps member with Report for America, an initiative of the GroundTruth Project.

Lucia Starbuck is an award-winning journalist covering politics, focusing on democracy and solutions for KUNR Public Radio. Her goal is to provide helpful and informative coverage for everyday Nevadans.
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