An Unsung Pit Crew of California’s Wildfires: Hotel Workers Left Behind


Stateline, Nevada — Natalia Bonifacio saw the world flee from the casino where she works. Thousands of tourists, homeowners and workers who are booming the economy along Lake Tahoe have flowed out of town in the last two weeks as wildfires rang near the Sierra Nevada Mountains.

But not her.

Where can she escape? A 21-year-old college student from the Dominican Republic, Bonifacio, 21, landed in the United States three months ago to work at one of the high-rise casinos adjacent to the coastline of a mountain lake in Nevada. She didn’t have a family here. She couldn’t afford a hotel room in a nearby town, which was crowded with more than 20,000 evacuees.

So when the ashes from Caldor’s fire snowed on Lake Tahoe, Bonifacio and a few other workers stayed behind. Since then, they have refueled and refueled thousands of firefighters who arrived here to fight a flame as large as Dallas, and are known to engage in the country’s highest priority wildfires. It became no pit crew.

Eight miles from the scorched front of the fire, a cluster of Las Vegas-style hotels on the California-Nevada border has transformed into a paramedic base camp. Boutique hotels and alpine lodges have been closed on the California side of the border, and fire trucks now occupy the valet parking spots of casinos on the Nevada side. Exhausted firefighters accustomed to camping in the woods carry takeaway pizza to their room.

While hundreds of hotel employees have joined the mass evacuation from Tahoe, skeleton staff who have decided to stay are serving quesadillas and iced coffee to hundreds of emergency responders who fill the room. .. They check in guests and pick up trash. They send clean sheets and towels to replace the ash-filled linen. They endure the smoke drifting in the hallways like phantom guests.

“It’s a disaster,” said Bonifacio, whose asthma is exacerbated by smoky air.

Some of the remaining staff are managers and lifelong residents of Tahoe and the surrounding towns. Elsewhere, immigrants from Southeast Asia and Latin American college students with temporary visas will be doing unattractive tasks such as washing dishes and changing sheets.

Between shifts, the rest of the workers look out the window while the smoke squeezes the diamonds in the lake. They exchange rumors about how the fire started (the cause is still under investigation) and reassure anxious relatives returning home that they are not at risk.

Bored indoors for nearly a week, they watch movies, chat with friends on WhatsApp, roam the carpeted casino floors, slot machines dimly shine, and who’s the serious rat pack song? Also does not play in a loop.

The sign to thank the firefighters in the gardens of the people around Tahoe does not mention behind-the-scenes support from workers like Mr. Bonifacio. However, others who stayed with her said that being stuck in the fire zone last week made their daily lives more meaningful.

“Rescuers, firefighters, police-we are helping these people,” said Odan Maria, a student at Dominican University who works as a dishwasher.

It wasn’t easy.

Smoke stabbed their eyes, and Bonifacio said he had barely been out for the past week as firefighters competed to drive fire out of cabins, condos and businesses around the lake.

Firefighters made steady progress by containing the fire with the help of a weak wind and lifted the South Lake Tahoe evacuation order on Sunday night. The fire, which destroyed about 700 homes, had been contained 44% by Sunday evening, CalFire reported.

Bonifacio had never experienced a wildfire when he joined dozens of other young Dominicans who registered to spend the summer on the shores of Lake Tahoe as part of a temporary work program. She was eager to earn $ 14 an hour she had saved for her medical school and send it back to her family.

Last Monday, the flames rushed towards the largest town by Lake Tahoe, so she decided not to take a whisk bus from the town to other hotel employees.

Bonifacio and a few Dominican friends put everything they owned in a suitcase and moved from the apartment to the hotel, where they worked as dishwashers, vacuum cleaners, cashiers, and deliverers. The casino hotel was not closed and provided free rooms to the workers who stayed.

On the ground floor of Montbrew Resort Casino, Ulysses Bertrand spent another night receiving an order for dinner from a firefighter. In a town where people once enjoyed a craft beer and Dungeness crab sandwich flight after paddleboarding on the lake, Bertrand’s half-price menu of nachos and burgers now marks the beginning and end of the Tahoe culinary scene. ..

His husband and two dogs fled to Los Angeles, but Mr. Bertrand decided to stay. He had no control over whether the fire struck South Lake Tahoe and destroyed the house he bought 15 years ago, but at least he was able to slip through his black face mask and feed people.

“We can’t go anywhere, but at least we can come in and help,” he said. “I’m okay, and my family is okay. They’re safe. I’m working.”

Tim Tretton, General Manager of Montbleu, said the hotel is fulfilling “our obligation to serve the people who protect our community.” The hotel’s marketing director, Eric Barbaro, said staff across from the Hard Rock Hotel and Casino planned a movie night and delivered food to evacuees outside the fire zone.

“There were no holidays,” he said.

For almost every business along the US 50, the main road through South Lake Tahoe has been locked and dark for over a week. One recent morning, a red NOVA CANCY light hummed outside an empty motel.

And then there was American gasoline. There, Stefka Dimitrova was in a hurry to unload the diesel canister. Dimitrois said he had moved from Bulgaria decades ago during times of economic turmoil and refused to escape from his nearly 20-year-old mountain home and gas station in South Lake Tahoe, California. I got on her sprinkler and started sleeping on the trailer right next to the gas pump.

“What if someone drives a car and needs gas?” She asked. “Everyone needs help.”

She has a lively business with beef jerky, chewing tobacco and cold coffee, and a suburban firefighter unfamiliar with Tahoe’s chilly nights wears a knit hat. Everyone wants gas and fuel for generators.

When Dimitrowa prepared a coffee pot on Friday morning, a privately hired firefighter, George Sandval, pulled it up halfway to clean up the brushes around the house.

“Most of them don’t know I’m open,” said Dimitrowa.

On the 15th floor of the hotel, Bonifacio and three friends share a two-bedroom and ask the same questions as thousands of people who fled. When will this end?

They are still receiving payment, but the bank is closed and they cannot send money home. Bonifacio is worried about finding a ride to Reno on his return flight on September 11. She hasn’t yet visited a government agency and filled out the paperwork to arrange work for the next summer.

“We lost a lot of time,” she said. “Maybe next year will be different.”


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