For Caldor fire evacuees, an anxious wait

Thick smoke rises behind a lake.
The Caldor fire burns at Caples Lake near the Kirkwood ski resort Wednesday.
(Wally Skalij / Los Angeles Times)

It took $20 for Michael Noel’s luck to change.

Noel, 57, and his friend, Dale Ross, 59, have been staying at the Reno-Sparks Convention Center after the Caldor fire forced them to leave their South Lake Tahoe home early this week.

The two evacuees took a walk Wednesday to the Atlantis Casino, which sits next to the convention center. Noel said he had a beer and decided to gamble, something he and his friend Ross rarely do.

Both men ended up putting $20 into slot machines and began to play for a few hours. When they were done, Noel had walked away with $140 and Ross had won $93.


Recalling the win, Noel chuckled.

“I told Dale, let’s go get dinner, I’m buying,” he said. “I got a Reuben sandwich, I love those sandwiches.”

As for Ross, he got steak.

The men then went shopping. Noel bought a Raiders sweater and pants. Ross also bought a new pair of pants and shoes. These were the only extra clothes they had now since evacuating.

The Caldor fire has destroyed more than 600 homes and threatens more than 32,000 structures as it moves toward the Nevada state line.

On Monday, the men said, they got a knock on their door and a sheriff’s deputy told them they needed to evacuate. There was one problem, however.

“I don’t have a car,” Ross said. Then he pointed to Noel. “He had been staying with me, and he was on an oxygen tank.”

Noel has one lung, and the smoke over the past few days was already making it difficult for him to breathe. Ross said he was told to go to a bus stop, where they would be picked up. Walking there meant stopping every few feet to allow Noel to catch his breath.

“It was terrible,” Noel said. “I couldn’t breathe. The mask didn’t help, either.”

They waited at the bus stop for an hour, and no one came.

“I called the police,” Ross said. “They told me to wave a cop down.”

When he did, police said they would drive the pair to a homeless coalition nearby. Eventually, they were transported to the convention center.

Ross said he had been in an evacuation center once before. In 2007, the Angora fire burned down the home he was renting.

“I lost everything,” he said. “My Chevy Blazer, too, but at least I was alive.”

He was grateful to be alive this time, too. He was also grateful for the firefighters and grateful to learn that containment of the fire had grown and that the winds that had stoked the blaze were settling down.

“I’m hopeful,” he said. “But I also have doubt that I have a home to come back to.”

Still the men said things would get better.

Paul Brooks, 64, who stood outside near Noel and Ross, wasn’t sure how to feel. He said he left his home in Roseville because of smoke from the wildfires and decided to rent a hotel room in South Lake Tahoe. He figured the air was cleaner there.

Four days later, he was forced to evacuate.

He said a shuttle eventually picked him up and brought him to the convention center in Reno. He said he didn’t know what to do now.

“My plans are open,” he said. “They have to be.”

Inside the convention center, he said, he’s seen people break down. Some get frustrated because they want to return home.

“But they can’t because of the situation,” he said. “People are becoming stir crazy, so I try to keep a positive attitude.”

“Go with the flow, you know,” he added.

Nearby, Noel agreed.

“It can’t stay bad forever,” he said.