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Going Home After Caldor Fire Evacuation: A Checklist For Tahoe Communities

On Sunday, the 22,000 residents of South Lake Tahoe were allowed to return to their homes a week after they were ordered to evacuate as the Caldor Fire crossed the Sierra Nevada.  And as fire crews continue working to contain the Caldor Fire, more evacuation orders may be lifted in the Tahoe region.

But even if a community was thankfully spared from a fire’s direct path, returning to an area impacted by wildfire can still hold complications.

Returning to your home after a wildfire can be tough — practically and emotionally. “Some may not want to return because of the difficulty of seeing your home and possessions in ashes,” said wildfire survivor Rob Goodman, who lost his home in the 2015 Valley Fire in Lake County.

Once a fire has burned through an area, many practical dangers remain. Damage to buildings can make those structures unstable, debris and downed trees can block roads and downed utility lines pose serious electrical and other hazards. Fire officials also warn that the risk of flooding remains high for weeks and months after a wildfire, due to the amount of destroyed vegetation that once stabilized the soil.

“If you do decide to return, I must urge great caution,” Goodman told KQED in 2017. “Your site will be toxic — containing everything from metals to plastics to wiring, plumbing, etc.”

Even for homes that are partially damaged or even seemingly intact, there are numerous precautions residents should take when returning after evacuation orders are lifted — precautions that may not be immediately obvious.

So if you are a full-time South Lake Tahoe resident planning your return home — or if, like many others, you own property in the Tahoe region and want to check in on your cabin or holiday home — we have expert advice on what to keep in mind before, during and after your trip back.

On Your Way Back Home After Evacuation

Before heading out to your home or cabin, confirm that your destination is under an evacuation warning — not a mandatory evacuation order. Read more on the difference between an evacuation order and a evacuation warning.

Cal Fire Amador-El Dorado provides daily updates on their @CALFireAEU Twitter account and CAL Fire AEU Facebook page on which areas are now under an evacuation warning and which roads are operational again. As of Monday, Highway 50 from the Nevada state line to the South Lake Tahoe city limits has reopened to traffic heading back to the city.

If you don’t live full-time in South Lake Tahoe and want to check up on your property home, it’s important to remember just how delicate the repopulation process can be for a city or town, and the people who call that place home. And if you don’t live in South Lake Tahoe and are rather wondering when you’ll be able to visit again, the same holds true. Read more ways of helping Caldor Fire evacuees, which include staying away from Tahoe right now.

A day after the evacuation orders were lifted, Tamara Wallace, Mayor of South Lake Tahoe spoke with KQED to share what was happening on the ground as folks returned.

Wallace shared that as of Monday morning, only one grocery store had reopened for a city of over 22,000 people.

“There’s limited services,” she said, adding that she was planning to hold off her own return to the city for a few days to not take up scarce resources.

Both Mayor Wallace and Cal Fire recommend residents that are currently allowed to return to their homes to first stock up on groceries, gas and other essential supplies before making the trip back.

“Give us a minute to get our services back up and running and get people resettled,” said Mayor Wallace. “And then we welcome you back.”

If you are worried that your home did not in fact survive the fire, the Office of the Sheriff of El Dorado County has created a searchable online map showing the status of every structure within the Caldor Fire that uses information from field damage inspections. These inspections are ongoing and the information shown is subject to change — so if you don’t see your property on the map, keep checking.

On Twitter, KQED’s Raquel Maria Dillon also compiled a list of available online resources and maps for keeping track of the status of roads and ski resorts.

What if you evacuated South Lake Tahoe but don’t currently have access to a car to return to the city? Lake Tahoe Unified School District and Tahoe Transportation District is providing free transportation services from the Reno Evacuation Shelter (located at 4590 South Virginia Street, Reno) back to the Stateline Transit Center to connect with existing Tahoe Transportation District routes back to South Lake Tahoe.

Once You’ve Arrived at Your Home

Disasters like wildfires and floods create additional safety hazards, often leaving behind toxic chemicals, gas leaks, broken glass, exposed rebar or nails and tripping hazards.

First of all, check for the smell of gas. Don’t enter if you smell gas and call your utility company immediately. Inspect your home for hot embers or material that may still be burning — in gutters, attics, crawl spaces or even holes in the ground. Be aware of slippery floors or broken material that could stab or puncture you. If there is any visible damage to gas lines, propane tanks or electrical wiring and meters, DO NOT attempt to turn them on or repair them. Contact your local utility immediately. If the utilities look undamaged, turn off power until you’ve completed your inspection. When you’re ready to turn the power on, first turn off all appliances and make sure the meter is not damaged before turning on the main circuit breaker. Keep an eye out for sparks, broken wires, or cracks in the roof, foundation or chimney, as well as plumbing and sewage system damage, household chemical spills and damaged appliances. Do not drink water from the faucet until officials say it’s safe to drink. Water supply systems can be damaged or become polluted during disasters. Discard all food that’s been exposed to heat, smoke, fumes, soot or flood waters. If the power has been out, discard food that could be spoiling.

What to Bring/Wear When You Return Home After Evacuation

Sturdy shoes and clothing Heavy-duty gloves Heavy-duty mask, like an N95 Battery-powered radio to monitor for emergency updates, weather reports, flash flood warnings and news reports Battery-powered flashlight Stick or gardening implement to sift through ashes 5-gallon bucket for any possessions

Health and Safety Considerations When Returning Home After Evacuation

Public health officials recommend that you refrain from cleaning ash and fire debris, and instead let professional hazardous material removal services do it. The ash and debris can contain asbestos, heavy metals, fire retardants, pesticides and toxic airborne particles.

If you do return to a fire-damaged site that hasn’t been cleaned up yet, keep the following in mind:

Pace yourself. Be aware of exhaustion. Stay hydrated. Wear protective gear if handling any fire-damaged items, sifting through ash or being exposed to soot. Sturdy shoes, clothing, work gloves and respirator masks like N95s are recommended. Wash your hands frequently Keep children and pets away Remember that large-scale movement of materials or removal of debris and ash should be coordinated with government agencies.

Looking Ahead After Your Return From Evacuation

If your home suffered damages or was entirely destroyed by the fires, the options available for you depend on whether you are the property owner or if you are the tenant.

If you are a renter, Tenants Together — a statewide nonprofit organization that advocates for the rights of tenants — has compiled a guide to your rights as a tenant and the responsibilities of your landlord if your home was destroyed in its entirety or red-tagged (when a home has been labeled as too dangerous to inhabit by local authorities). Get the Tenants Together guide.

The guide also specifies that if the property you have been renting was destroyed by the fire, your lease contract is immediately terminated. Unfortunately, your landlord is not legally obliged to provide you with a relocation payment in the case of natural disasters, like a wildfire.

If your home is red-tagged, your landlord cannot charge you rent while the structure is being rehabilitated.

If you owned your home and had wildfire insurance, call your insurance company to check how much your policy covers. Take pictures of all the damage and keep good records of repair and cleaning costs.

Some policies cover both the main dwelling of the property and other structures, like a barn or garden shed, while others only provide for the main living structure. If you believe that your insurance company is not providing the coverage you are entitled to, you can also call the Consumer Hotline of the California Department of Insurance at 1 (800) 927-4357 or file a complaint about your insurance provider online.

Regardless of your situation, it’s important to remember that flash floods and mudslides are a common and deadly hazard after a wildfire, so be sure to have an evacuation plan and monitor weather reports for flood warnings. It’s also a good idea to start arranging for inspections if you think there’s potential damage to electrical, heating, or solar power systems or to the structural integrity of your home.

And keep an eye out on the social media channels of local and county authorities, as they should later on provide information about efforts to coordinate proper disposal of rubble, debris and hazardous waste.

KQED’s Miranda Leitsinger and Michelle Cheng contributed to this story.

Copyright 2021 KQED