Evacuees celebrate Independence Day in gymnasium
GARDNERVILLE — Pau-Wa-Lu Middle School’s gymnasium makes an unlikely honeymoon destination but that’s where newlyweds Jeff and Jenny Hamilton found themselves after the Gondola Fire forced them to evacuate the Ridge Tahoe Resort where they were staying.
“All of our money is up there and our clothes — all that kind of stuff,” said Jeff Hamilton. “But we’re glad everybody’s safe and no houses have been burned.”
The Fresno couple was married June 30 and, like other evacuees, the Hamiltons searched to find the silver lining around the cloud of smoke.
“It’s definitely memorable,” Jenny Hamilton said.
Between 400 and 450 people checked into the temporary shelter set up at Pau-Wa-Lu Middle School in the Gardnerville Ranchos and about 200 stayed Wednesday in cots or in their cars in the parking lot.
Kingsbury Grade to South Lake Tahoe, where the fire burned about 670 acres over Wednesday and Thursday, was reopened late Thursday afternoon allowing residents to return home and vacationers to retrieve their belongings.
Evacuees will have 24 hours from the time the road reopened before the shelter is shut down. Although most will be happy to leave, some found hidden benefits.
Celia Vinson and Elisa Marty, both of San Francisco, enrolled their toddlers in the same preschool and used the same babysitter. Over the years, however, they lost touch and the girls grew up.
Nine years later, they found each other again in the temporary shelter after both of their vacation resorts were evacuated.
The girls, Lisa Nicole Marty, 11, and Angelique Rahimi, 11, were reunited and along with friend Amy Shelton, 12, stayed up all night playing games and watching movies.
“We’re friends now,” Angelique said. “We made this strange drink and stayed up all night and did a lot of things.”
Frank and Julie Brown of Tucson, Ariz., spent the day playing games with their two children Nick, 8, and Bailey, 6.
“I think Nick summed it up when he said, ‘This is the worst vacation we’ve ever had,'” Frank Brown said. “But it’s not that bad — it could be worse.”
The Browns had not decided whether they would watch fireworks later that night but others were sure of their plans.
“It doesn’t even seem like the Fourth of July anymore,” said Peter Barry, vacationing from Connecticut. “We’re just going to try to make a break for it tonight.”
The Carson Valley Inn prepared meals for those stranded in the middle school and the Southern Baptist Convention from Reno prepared a special dinner for Thursday evening.
“Everything is going wonderfully,” said Kim Coch, the mass care officer for the Sierra Nevada chapter of the Red Cross. “We have about 20 Red Cross volunteers and 16 local people came in to help.”
Disaster Action Teams, trained under the Red Cross, were among the volunteers serving food, providing supplies from diapers to insulin and general supervision.
Vicky Tribbon, personnel director for the Ridge Resorts, coordinated efforts to retrieve important documents, medication, money, luggage and other items from the Ridge Tahoe, Ridge View and Ridge Crest resorts for the evacuees.