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California wildfires send evacuees scrambling toward another threat: Covid-19

The Walbridge Fire threatens a home outside of Healdsburg, Calif. (Stuart W. Palley for The Washington Post)

SANTA CRUZ, Calif. — Sarah Wells was anxious about the boyfriend she hadn't heard from and the home she fled as the wildfires approached. And now, in the middle of a pandemic, the woman by the door of her evacuation center was not wearing a face mask.

“You’re too close to us,” Wells, 59, said as she emerged from the Santa Cruz Civic Auditorium, now home to about 80 people from Boulder Creek, Bonny Doon and other communities upended by this week’s spreading blazes.

“You should worry about the fires,” replied the maskless woman standing just outside the door.

Californians are facing duel crises now, as wildfires, still raging largely out of control across a large swath of the state, force tens of thousands of people from their homes during a similarly uncontrolled pandemic. People who have been told for months to stay in and avoid others are now fleeing to different cities, filling hotels and trying to maintain some semblance of social distancing at makeshift shelters, as officials find urgent relief efforts complicated by the ever-present threat of the novel coronavirus.

“It’s just added an extra layer,” said Rylan Hunt, an overnight supervisor at the Civic Auditorium, which filled up two nights ago as the need to space people six feet apart in tents drove down capacity.

Capital Weather Gang: California’s wildfires burn 771,000 acres in one week, killing 5 and degrading air quality

Nearly 771,000 acres of land have burned across California during the past week, according to CalFire, as dozens of lightning-sparked wildfires continue to move quickly through dry vegetation and threaten the edges of cities and towns.

Although the weather appears to be turning more favorable — with higher humidity and generally light winds — the National Weather Service warned that Tropical Storm Genevieve, near the Baja Peninsula, is expected to release a pulse of moisture and instability this weekend into early next week that would increase the potential for more lightning “that may lead to further ignitions.”

Vacaville residents evacuated to shelters on August 18, as wildfires threatened their homes. (Video: The Washington Post)

An earlier unusual summer storm during a record-breaking heat wave let loose more than 20,000 lightning strikes, which authorities say are responsible for the widespread fires in California.

Evacuations from several communities surged during the day and night Thursday into Friday, with some of the fires growing rapidly. Some might not be able to return to their homes for weeks.

Evacuees at the Civic Auditorium in Santa Cruz line up to sanitize their hands and have their temperature taken each time they enter. Staff dispense masks and are constantly reminding people to keep them on, Hunt said. Emotions are raw — some people here lost their homes to the flames — but there is no hugging.

“Obviously, it’s a totally wild situation to have this level of a fire on top of covid-19,” Hunt said.

One evacuee who had a high temperature upon entering the shelter is still sequestered in a spare room that has become a “quarantine” area, Hunt said, and nursing staff are on hand to help. The person in quarantine has been tested for the virus and comes and goes through side doors, he said.

Most people in the shelter have been vigilant about coronavirus precautions. But some said they remain wary. With widespread community transmission in parts of California, experts have repeatedly warned against indoor gatherings as particularly risky.

“I’m very much worried” about the virus, said Anita Good, who plans to celebrate her 59th birthday this weekend by praying about her neighborhood back in Boulder Creek. She has COPD, which along with her age makes her particularly vulnerable to infection.

But she said other fears are more pressing. She can’t stop thinking about her two collies, which a neighbor dropped off at a shelter while she hastily evacuated from a hospital where she had had eye surgery. She was still wearing an eye patch.

The most important thing, she said, was to get away.

At the Civic Auditorium now, she tries to spend as much time as she can outdoors. She found a nice spot across the street with a fountain that calms her, and she has refrained from telling others at the shelter about it.

“Then there will be crowds,” she said, half-joking.

Wells hears people coughing in the night and wonders if it is covid-19, the disease caused by the novel coronavirus, or the smoky air that has dusted everyone’s cars with ash. She is a cashier at CVS, so she is used to living with the virus looming.

“I think to myself, ‘Okay, they’ve got a tent, I’ve got a tent — I’m probably okay,’ ” Wells said.

Like many people flooding emergency centers, she has nowhere else to turn. The coronavirus outbreak has made each step of her journey more challenging.

First: the frustrating search for an open public restroom and the discomfort with the ones available as she drove away from Boulder Creek. “Sure, if I have a can of Lysol,” she says of using one bathroom in a parking garage.

Then: the futile attempts to find a friend who would take her in. Some people did not respond. One household was off-limits because a family member is immunocompromised, raising fears that an outsider could bring in a lethal threat.

Like some others at the civic auditorium Friday, Wells said she can’t afford a hotel room. She is not sure she could get one anyway. She called an inn in Santa Cruz earlier in the week only to hear that every room was booked.

The man who answered the phone “told me don’t even bother calling or stopping at any hotels,” Wells said.

The strains here are affecting nearly everything. Firefighters have warned that they are spread thin by the sheer number of blazes statewide, requesting hundreds of fire engines and accompanying personnel from out of state.

So Wells was stuck without much to do, waiting to get a text back from the boyfriend who she says disregarded evacuation orders to spend the night dousing his house with water from a hose.

Officials have warned all week against trying to linger and protect property, hoping to prevent a loss of life on the scale of the 2018 Camp Fire in Paradise, Calif. Five deaths are already connected to the latest blazes.

While Californians are no strangers to bad fire seasons, Boulder Creek-area evacuees said they have never had to worry much before. Several said they want leaders to do more about the climate change that is linked to the hot, dry weather behind California wildfires’ growing threat.

“I never in my wildest dreams would think that I would be a refugee in my own hometown,” Wells said.

Correction: A previous version of this article incorrectly stated Sarah Wells’s age as 57. She is 59. It also said Wells’s doctor’s appointment was canceled because workers were not showing up. In fact, Wells heard that this was because of patients not showing up.

Freedman reported from Washington.