‘We got the baby, we’re good’: Families flee the Caldor fire with little time to spare

Two people stand and one sits in a low chair amid tents.
Rick Wright, 60, was at the Douglas County Community Center in Gardnerville, Nev., with his wife and granddaughter after evacuating from their home near South Lake Tahoe.
(Ruben Vives / Los Angeles Times)

The ash fell from the yellow sky and landed on the parking lot of the Douglas County Community Center.

It fell on the dozens of cars and RVs owned by residents who were recently forced to evacuate their homes as a fire approached the South Lake Tahoe area.

Standing near three tents set up at the edge of the evacuation center’s parking lot, Rick and Lee Wright, who are ski instructors at Heavenly Mountain Resort, said they had never been evacuated from their home before.


“I didn’t think it could happen,” Rick Wright, 60, said. “I thought they would throw an army in there to stop it from getting to Tahoe, but it became real Sunday night, you know?”

For days the Caldor fire had been moving toward the popular ski resort town. Black smoke billowed out of the fire as it burned acres of forest trees. Wright said it was “dead calm” on Sunday night.

There were no winds, just smoke. Then came the evacuation warning. The Wrights, whose home is two miles southeast of South Lake Tahoe, began loading clothes, photos and documents into a red Ford Expedition and a blue Subaru.

Several days before, Wright said, he had packed up two other cars they owned and driven them down to a friend’s house out of precaution.

“We were ready to go anytime,” he said. Wright said it was around 10:30 p.m. when a police officer knocked on their door, telling them that there was an evacuation warning but urged them to leave.

Concern for his nervous wife and granddaughter, 2-year-old Wynn, he decided to evacuate. It was about 1:30 a.m. when they began to make the 45-minute drive down the mountain to the evacuation center in Nevada. On the way down, he tried to keep his wife calm.


“I just told her we were out,” he said. “I said, ‘We got the baby, we’re good.’”

At the evacuation center early Monday, Wright began to set up the tents, which he had bought five months ago initially to go camping. “We’re doing it now,” he said, chuckling. “We’re camping.”

The Caldor fire has destroyed nearly 500 structures as it has marched toward South Lake Tahoe and Nevada. The entire town of South Lake Tahoe was evacuated, and officials in Nevada are also issuing their own evacuation orders.

Phoenix Hunter, 53, a ski instructor, said she began to worry about the fire when she learned that the ski resort she works for, Sierra-at-Tahoe, had called in a hotshot fire crew to protect the property.

“I had my antenna up,” she said, smiling. She said the resort used snow guns to spray water on the property.

The 22-year resident said it was Sunday night when she got an evacuation warning and began to place personal items into her Subaru.

It was late Monday morning when she left her home with her 15-year-old daughter, two dogs and a rabbit named Butterscotch.

“I was about to leave the house when the [mandatory evacuation order] came in,” she said. For Hunter and her daughter, it was the second time they had to evacuate. In 2007, the Angora fire forced her to evacuate.

Her daughter was 1 at the time. Hunter said that she left behind a dog then. but that this time she felt more prepared and calm. Still she can’t help but feel some stress.

“I try to look at the bright side that I’m alive and not in the bull’s-eye of the fire,” she said. “I’m sad that some people are, but I try to help others as much as I can.”

“Things could always be worse,” she added.