Wildfires do not compromise; they are unforgiving. So, for people like Jessie Wagster, it’s best to grab what matters most and get out of the way.
“My guitar, my dog, and these wind chimes. The wind chimes I brought with me, are my mom’s," Wagster said of the wind chimes that hang on his tent outside an American Red Cross shelter in Placerville, California.
He found refuge at the Northern California shelter with hundreds of others who were forced to evacuate because of the Caldor Fire. Thousands more have had to leave their homes as flames stretch east of Sacramento all the way to the Nevada border. The fire has already burned an area larger than the size of Chicago.
Wagster gets emotional when thinking of the 400 homes already destroyed by the fire, especially in the small town of Grizzly Flat, California, which is less than 40 miles from where he is staying.
“Every summer, every summer I don’t say it’s summer anymore. I say, ‘Oh no, it’s fire season,’" said Marie Ghodossi.
Ghodossi has lived in this area for more than four decades. She says she had half an hour to leave her house when she was ordered to evacuate.
“I was happy there weren’t flames," Ghodossi said of when she was leaving her home. "I wasn't about to take a chance."
She's been at the Red Cross shelter for more than a week. Many evacuees here do not know when they will go home.
“We could be staying here two weeks three weeks, nobody knows when we’re going to go back home so," said Crimzin Long.
Long has started volunteering with the Red Cross, helping hand out food and supplies to fellow evacuees at this shelter.
The American Red Cross is operating multiple shelters in Northern California this wildfire season. The organization is collecting donations to help people who are displaced. At their shelters, they are providing food, clothing, and beds to those who have been forced from their homes.
The challenges of the wildfire season stretch beyond California.
"Processing the loss is hard because of my close ties to the area," said Dan Gentry, chairman of the Klamath Tribes.
The Klamath Tribes in Southern Oregon are recovering after the Bootleg Fire. At one point, it grew to be the largest in the nation in August and burned much of their sacred, ancestral land.
"It's going to take quite a while for it to come back, definitely up to 500-600 years to get some of those big ponderosa pine we lost in the fire," Gentry said.
Now, the Tribe is working with the US Forest Service and the nonprofit The Nature Conservancy to find ways to stop future fires from spreading.
Scientists are studying the effectiveness of fires they set intentionally and control in areas at risk of wildfires to burn away the dry brush that wildfires feed on before they can begin. They say the prescribed burns helped stop the Bootleg Fire from spreading even further this year.
While scientists work on stopping the flames of the future, the flames of the present are keeping shelters full. Evacuees wait on briefings from firefighters multiple times a week about where the fire has spread, whether their homes are still safe, and when they could go home.
Moving is not that simple for people, like Ghodossi, who will return to their homes, a place that will likely face the threat of fire again.
“No, well we can’t afford to, what are we going to do? Move to the coast? And live on the beach? In a tent?” Ghodossi said.
As for Wagster, who strums his guitar as he sits outside his car waiting for updates on the fire that pushed him from his home, a positive attitude helps the days of evacuation pass by.
“I can’t wait to leave," Wagster expressed.
Wagster admits there is always a concern when one of life’s guarantees has become the uncertainty of what a wildfire will do next.
"I’ve only been here three days, right. I’ve already got anxiety. I keep hoping they say, ‘OK, we’re done. You can leave now,’ but I haven’t heard that yet," Wagster said.