STATELINE, Nev. – From the casino where she works, Nathalia Bonifacio watched the world flee. Thousands of tourists, homeowners and workers who keep the economy going along Lake Tahoe have poured out of town in the past two weeks as a wildfire roared closer through the Sierra Nevada.
But not her.
Where could she run? Ms. Bonifacio, 21, a student from the Dominican Republic, had landed in the United States three months earlier to work at one of the high-rise casinos that flank the Nevada shore of the mountain lake. She had no family here. She couldn’t afford a hotel room in the nearby towns, which were packed with more than 20,000 evacuees.
So while the ashes from the Caldor fire snowed on Lake Tahoe, Mrs. Bonifacio and a handful of other workers were left behind. Since then, they’ve become an unsung pit crew working the nation’s top-priority wildfires, feeding and refueling thousands of firefighters who arrive here to fight a fire the size of Dallas.
Eight miles from the charred front lines of the fire, a cluster of Vegas-style hotels on the California-Nevada border has been turned into a base camp for first responders. With boutique hotels and alpine lodges on the California side of the border, fire trucks now occupy valet parking spaces in the casinos on the Nevada side. Exhausted firefighters used to camping in the woods bring takeout pizzas to their rooms.
While hundreds of hotel workers participated in the mass evacuation from Tahoe, skeletal staff who decided to stay are now serving quesadillas and iced coffee to hundreds of rescuers filling the rooms. They check guests in and pick up trash. They send clean sheets and towels to replace bedding soaked with ashes. They tolerate the smoke wafting through the hallways like a ghost guest.
“It’s a disaster,” said Ms Bonifacio, whose asthma is exacerbated by the smoky air.
Some of the remaining employees are executives and lifelong residents of Tahoe and surrounding cities. Others are immigrants from Southeast Asia and Latin American students with temporary visas who come to do the unattractive work of washing dishes and changing sheets.
Between shifts, the remaining workers stare out the window as smoke strangles the lake’s diamond waters. They exchange rumors about how the fire could have started (the cause is still under investigation) and assure concerned relatives at home that they are not in danger.
They are bored indoors after almost a week, killing time watching movies, chatting with friends on WhatsApp and wandering the carpeted casino floors where slot machines glow listlessly and loop brassy Rat Pack melodies for no one.
The signs thanking firefighters in people’s yards around Tahoe don’t mention the behind-the-scenes support from workers like Ms. Bonifacio. But she and others who stayed said being stuck in a fire zone for the past week had made their daily routines more meaningful.
“Rescuers, firefighters, police – we’re helping these people,” said Odan Maria, a Dominican student who works as a dishwasher.
Not that it has been easy.
The smoke stings their eyes and Ms Bonifacio said she had barely been outside in the past week as firefighters rushed to chase the fires away from the cabins, apartments and businesses around the lake.
Firefighters have made steady progress in controlling the fire using lighter winds and lifted evacuation orders for South Lake Tahoe on Sunday evening. The fire, which destroyed nearly 700 homes, was 44 percent under control Sunday night, Cal Fire reported.
Ms. Bonifacio had never experienced a wildfire when she joined dozens of other young Dominicans who volunteered to spend a summer at Lake Tahoe as part of a temporary work program. She was eager to earn $14 an hour, money she was saving for medical education and to send back to her family.
Last Monday, as the fire swept toward the largest towns on Lake Tahoe, she decided not to board the buses that would take other hotel workers out of town.
Mrs. Bonifacio and some Dominican friends threw everything they owned into suitcases and retreated from their apartments to the hotels where they work as dishwashers, cleaners, cashiers and deliverers. The casino hotels did not close and offered free rooms to employees who stayed.
On the ground floor of the Montbleu Resort Casino, Ulycees Beltran spent another evening taking dinner orders from firefighters coming off the line. In a town where people once enjoyed microbrew sandwiches and Dungeness crab sandwiches after days of paddleboarding in the lake, Mr. Beltran’s half-priced menu of nachos and burgers now represented the beginning and end of Tahoe’s culinary scene.
His husband and two dogs fled to Los Angeles, but Mr. Beltran decided to stay. He wasn’t able to control the fire swarming through South Lake Tahoe and destroying the house he’d bought 15 years ago, but at least he could put on his black face mask and feed people.
“We have nowhere to go, but at least we can come in and help,” he said. “I’m okay and my family is okay. They are safe. I’m working.”
Tim Tretton, MontBleu’s general manager, said the hotel “delivers on our commitment to serve those who protect our community.” Across the street at the Hard Rock Hotel and Casino, staff have hosted movie nights and delivered food to evacuees outside the fire zone, said Eric Barbaro, the hotel’s director of marketing.
“There hasn’t been a day off,” he said.
Nearly every business along US 50, the main road through South Lake Tahoe, has been shut down and dark for over a week. Red NO JOB lights buzzed outside empty motels one recent morning.
And then there was American Gasoline, where Stefka Dimitrova rushed to unload a load of diesel buses. Ms. Dimitrova said she had emigrated from Bulgaria decades earlier during a time of economic turmoil, refusing to flee the mountain home and gas station she owned in South Lake Tahoe, California for nearly 20 years. When the fire broke out, she turned around. on her sprinklers and began sleeping in a trailer just next to the gas pumps.
“What happens if someone drives by and needs gas?” she asked. “Everyone needs help.”
She does a brisk trade in beef jerky, chewing tobacco and cold coffee, and the out-of-town firefighters, unaccustomed to Tahoe’s chilly nights, pack knitted hats. Everyone wants gas and fuel for their generators.
On Friday morning, as Ms. Dimitrova was making a pot of coffee, George Sandoval, a private firefighter, stopped on his way to clear undergrowth around homes.
“Most of them don’t know I’m open,” said Mrs. Dimitrova.
On the 15th floor of her hotel, Mrs. Bonifacio and three friends share a two-bedroom and ask the same question as the thousands who have fled: When will this all be over.
Although they are still paid, the banks are closed and they cannot send money home. Ms. Bonifacio began to worry about finding a lift to Reno for her return flight on September 11. She has yet to visit a government office and fill out the paperwork to arrange another summer job.
“We’ve lost so much time,” she said. “Maybe next year will be different.”