As of Tuesday afternoon, the Creek Fire has grown to nearly 144,000 acres and is still completely uncontained. Evacuation orders have been issued for areas around Tollhouse and Prather up through the High Sierra regions around Mono Hot Springs, and evacuation warnings stretch as far north as Wawona and as far south as areas near Pine Flat Lake.
For the thousands of people who have been forced out of their homes, the Red Cross has set up evacuation centers at Clovis North High School and Oakhurst Community Center.
In some regards, these shelters operate similarly as in years past: They provide snacks, water bottles, an air-conditioned refuge, and connections to essential services. But the need for safety amid the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic has led to some recent changes: Face masks are required inside, and volunteers are checking temperatures and screening for symptoms at the door.
Perhaps more significantly, the centers aren’t providing overnight beds, instead helping evacuees to reserve rooms in hotels and motels. “We’re going to ask you what’s your family size, do you have pets, then we’re going to get you placed in accommodations,” said Red Cross spokesperson Nicole Maul at the evacuation center in Clovis.
One person awaiting a hotel room on Monday was Victor Sedano, who had just fled his home in Auberry with his girlfriend and their three young children. “It was all red and just smoke everywhere, you could barely see, when you go outside it’s hard to breathe,” he said. “There was ashes too coming down, it was pretty bad, it was scary.”
The young stay-at-home dad says his girlfriend is heartbroken at the thought of losing their home. But if that happens, he said they do have a plan. “I’m from Fresno originally, so if it burns, I’m going to come to Fresno and move here,” he said. “It’s sad, it sucks, because I liked it up there, I liked the mountains.”
The evacuees don’t just include people.
Claudia Stone and her two dogs also left Auberry that morning, along with three other animals: Horses. “Bronco, Emmy and Zara,” she said lovingly. “I’ve had Bronco for 17 years, and the other ones a little bit less.”
Stone had just moved from Fresno to Auberry in May. She said receiving the evacuation warning, then the order, was terrifying – just like the darkening sky as she left her home around the same time Sedano did. “It was really really dark, smoky smoky dark,” she said. “My horses were nervous.”
Stone and her horse trailer arrived at the large animal evacuation center at the Clovis Rodeo Grounds on Monday afternoon. “I feel so relieved to be able to come here, so relieved,” she said, especially to a familiar place—she said she had been the Clovis Rodeo Queen in 1992. “I’m with people I know,” she said.
Vince Genco is on the Board of Directors for the Clovis Rodeo, and he said he was happy to turn the festival grounds into something helpful. “Everybody has to give back to the community, that’s the important part,” he said. “We don’t do it for the recognition or anything else, we do it because it’s the thing to do.”
Stone’s horses joined three other horses, two donkeys, and around 65 cattle already at the shelter. Genco says the space will be available, along with round-the-clock carers, for as long as there’s a need.
Smaller animals are being accepted at Granite Ridge Intermediate School and Red Cross evacuation centers. As of Monday, the center in Clovis had already received cats, dogs, rabbits and a rattlesnake.