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The Apple Fire -- And Coronavirus -- Leaves Some Evacuees Scrambling For Shelter

Chris Ellsworth helps an evacuee with finding hotel rooms for his family. (Josie Huang/LAist)
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Wildfire evacuees used to be able to count on sheltering at their local high schools or rec centers. But those fleeing the Apple fire in Riverside County are finding out that the coronavirus has eliminated that option.

Socially distancing wouldn't be possible had the American Red Cross set up dozens of cots in the gym of Beaumont High School. Instead, volunteers are trying to place evacuees in hotel rooms, which the Red Cross books and pays for.

"We're gonna need a place to sleep tonight," said Richard Dixon, 93, as he and his wife, Barbara, sat down to fill out an application.

The Cherry Valley couple were among the 7,800-plus people ordered to evacuate as the Apple fire has spread over 20,516 acres since Friday afternoon.

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Cal Fire Capt. Chris Bruno said more than 1,200 firefighters from across the state were battling the blaze, which was at 12% containment as of Sunday afternoon.

But he said the Apple fire had a lot of potential to get bigger because of the high temperatures, low humidity and fuel beds -- the dried vegetation on hillsides.

"The western-facing slopes dries out that fuel bed, and then that is just primed for the wildland fires," Bruno said.

As of Sunday afternoon, the American Red Cross had helped just under 40 people -- a tiny sliver of the estimated 7,800 people displaced since Friday evening by the fire, the region's largest so far this year.

But word had begun to spread on social media that the Red Cross was offering rooms to evacuees. Marcella Mejia of Banning came by the high school after seeing the information on Facebook. She needs rooms for herself, her husband and their three children.

Firefighters had knocked on their door Friday night telling them to evacuate. The family quickly gathered their two dogs and 15 chickens and transported them to a friend's home. They've stayed with friends for the past two nights.

"We were told when we moved to Banning that it was a very high-risk area for fires," Mejia said. "But you never imagine this happening."

Rooms were not always immediately available. Chris Ellsworth, the Red Cross volunteer leading operations at the high school, said that other evacuees were independently looking for rooms, as were departments responding to the Apple fire, such as the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection.

"You have a number of different groups of people looking for the same set of limited resources," Ellsworth said.

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Richard and Barbara Dixon socially distanced in the Beaumont High School gym as they waited for their hotel assignment. (Josie Huang/LAist)

Richard and Barbara Dixon had gotten a hotel room through the Red Cross on Friday, but it was for only one night. When they didn't see the Red Cross in the high school parking lot on Saturday, they found another room on their own.

The couple then realized the Red Cross had moved operations indoors and came by on Sunday for help. The couple was asked to review a list of coronavirus symptoms and make note if they had any.

"Muscle pain, fatigue, loss of taste or smell, nausea," Richard Dixon intoned. "No. No problem."

The couple asked to wait for their hotel assignment in the gym. A volunteer led the Dixons to the stands and asked them to socially distance from others.

The couple, misunderstanding the instruction, gamely sat apart from each other as he mustered a laugh: "What you gotta do, you gotta do."