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A grueling wait for Caldor fire evacuees: ‘I just want to sleep in my own bed’

An emergency vehicle sits in the road next to burning trees.
Firefighters battle the Caldor fire Thursday along Highway 89, west of Lake Tahoe.
(Wally Skalij / Los Angeles Times)

David Duncan sat in his Ram 1500 pickup truck with his German shepherd, Kona, and his black mouth cur, Jasper, hoping he could return home after he was forced to evacuate 16 days ago as the Caldor fire bore down on the region.

“I just want to sleep in my own bed,” he said.

His home sits at the southern end of Pollock Pines, a small community east of Sacramento that remains under evacuation orders.

The Caldor fire has burned more than 212,000 acres and destroyed hundreds of structures, threatening thousands more. The blaze, which was 29% contained as of Friday morning, has eased a bit as winds died down and no longer poses a major threat to Lake Tahoe. But for those chased out of their homes by flames, the waiting game continues.

Duncan said much of what has burned was four to five miles away from his home, and said he didn’t understand why authorities couldn’t let him back in.

If there was no power, he said he had a generator he could use. In the meantime, he waited in his truck in the parking lot of Safeway, hoping any moment the evacuation order would be lifted. He said if he couldn’t get in that day, he’d go to Placerville and stay at his ex-wife’s house, where he could sleep and let his dogs out in the backyard.

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He glanced back at Kona, asking her what she was looking at. “I already got us a sandwich,” he told her.

The massive Caldor fire has been burning for 18 days. As of Wednesday night, it had seared through 207,931 acres and was 23% contained.

Brad Hutchinson, 65, who sat in his Honda Accord nearby, said he had been allowed back into his Pollock Pines home only a day earlier after spending two weeks at a Best Western in Roseville.

“I’m grateful as hell to be home,” he said. “It cost me $3,000 though.”

He said he was dependent on food donations from a local Walmart and various churches.

“There was a lot of help out there,” he said.

But now that he was home, he thought about what comes next: paying his credit card bill and taking care of his two grandsons and stepson, as well as his wife, who was recently in the hospital.

“I haven’t worked in 12 years because I’m disabled,” he said. “But I’m the type that doesn’t ask for help and try to do it on my own.”

He paused.

“I try to, at least, “ he said, tearing up. “It’s hard and I cry a lot.”

Wiping his tears, he closed his door and started his car.

“The fire made it worse,” he said, “but I’m grateful to be home.”

Smoke and ash are reducing the clarity of Lake Tahoe’s famed deep blue waters. Researchers are studying whether the damage is temporary or lasting.

It took only $20 for Michael Noel’s luck to change. Well, just a little.

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 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 giggled.

“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. Then the men 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 from their home.

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 only one problem: “I don’t have a car,” Ross said.

He pointed to Noel, saying, “He had been staying with me and he was on an oxygen tank.” Noel has one lung, and the smoke that blanketed the region 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, but a bus never arrived.

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

After a police officer drove them down, they were taken to a homeless coalition. Ross said that’s how they ended up at the convention center.

For Ross, it was his second time at an evacuation center. In 2007, the Angora fire had burned down the home he was renting.

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

He said he was grateful to the firefighters battling the Caldor fire as he learned that containment of the blaze had increased and the winds had died down.

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


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