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Some Evacuees Of Calif. Fire Skip Red Cross For Neighborhood Shelters


And we go now to Northern California where the massive Rocky Fire has burned some 68,000 acres and destroyed nearly 100 structures. It's also displaced hundreds of people. It's been almost a week now since those in and around the town of Clear Lake had to flee their properties. Some have been staying at a large improvised shelter not far from the wildfire's path. NPR's Kirk Siegler stopped by.

KIRK SIEGLER, BYLINE: The Loyal Order of the Moose Lodge 2284 has emerged as the gathering place for wildfire evacuees in this largely rural pocket of Northern California. Each night, up to a hundred people are camping here in tents, RVs and cars. All are grateful for the showers and facilities.

ERIC AUSTIN: This is totally amazing. Have you been through inside? I asked for a little help, and it's like, holy cow.

SIEGLER: The manager here, Eric Austin, says his lodge has been transformed into a bustling shelter.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: I'm looking for a lady named Pam.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: Pam - is there a Pam in the building?

SIEGLER: Inside, there are boxes of donated clothes, food, bottled water and medicine. In one corner, volunteers tend to the elderly and a group of veterans displaced by the Rocky Fire. In another, a free dinner of chicken and mashed potatoes is being prepped. Now, Austin says most are here from an evacuated neighborhood just to the east, along Highway 20.

AUSTIN: This is Spring Valley’s home away from home. They don't want to deal with Red Cross. That's why they come here.

SIEGLER: The nearest official Red Cross shelters are at least a 40-minute drive from here, so some are staying here out of pure convenience. But for others, it's clear that there's a deep mistrust of government aid and official relief organizations.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: Me personally, yes, it's stressful because of the situation. But thanks to the community and not the government, the community of this city of - this area has come together here, and...

SIEGLER: Out on the gravel parking lot, James Logan and his wife had to have their recently purchased RV towed down here. They were staying up at his mom's place when the evacuation orders came down. They're stressed out. His wife is worried she'll miss her waitress shifts.

JAMES LOGAN: We've been hearing so many different rumors about Red Cross trying to shut us down and all kinds of [expletive], but none of us care. We're here as a - as, like, a united family.

SIEGLER: Now, The Red Cross says those rumors aren't true, but the agency, along with local law enforcement authorities, has been urging people to evacuate to official shelters instead, where they can be accounted for. But so far, that's not really happening. By contrast with the Moose Lodge, the Red Cross shelters have seemed like ghost towns often with more volunteers than evacuees.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #3: Good luck, guys.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #4: All right. Stay safe out there.

SIEGLER: Only four checked into this one yesterday. Jeff Baumgartner is executive director of the Northwest California chapter of the Red Cross.

JEFF BAUMGARTNER: And so our volunteers are trained. They're background checked. We know who they are. And that's where we want folks to come because we know who they're working with.

SIEGLER: This tension highlights a perpetual challenge faced by first responders, especially during rural natural disasters like this. Baumgartner says he sympathizes with people who would rather take shelter with their neighbors. But a lot of times, there are safety concerns, and the Moose Lodge, for instance, is still under notice for possible evacuation.

In a field adjacent to the property, a backhoe is digging a 10-foot-wide firebreak. Manager Eric Austin thinks it's pretty doubtful the Lodge will get evacuated at this point. Cooler weather has slowed the progress of the Rocky Fire, and Austin is even planning a little party for this evening.

AUSTIN: They can feel relaxed, not stressed out like everybody's been doing the last couple days, you know what?

SIEGLER: There will be a barbeque and even a karaoke machine. Kirk Siegler, NPR News, Clear Lake, Calif. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.