Updated September 7, 2021 - 7:24 am
RENO — As the Caldor Fire approached South Lake Tahoe, 75-year-old “Mr. Louis,” as he’s known, was alone in his apartment.
Louis, who did not give his last name, is legally blind. The apartment complex’s management put him on a shuttle bus to Reno on Monday, as thousands of residents and visitors were ordered to evacuate the area, creating a miles-long backup.
While this was happening, Louis’ caretaker, Valerie Bridges, was stuck in traffic miles away and trying to reach him before he boarded the bus. Bridges, 53, eventually arrived at Louis’ apartment and opened the door to find him gone.
She immediately began making calls to try to figure out where Louis was being taken. She said the apartment complex manager didn’t get that information when Louis boarded the bus.
“I just started calling every number I could come up with,” Bridges said. “As soon as they got him out of the building, I was like, ‘Uh-oh, I’m going to have a task.’ ”
Bridges kept at it for three days, making calls to various shelters. She realized it could be a problem if Red Cross volunteers ask Louis about her.
“He (Louis) doesn’t know me by Valerie; he knows me by Co Co,” she said.
Bridges said she had a hunch that Louis was at the Reno-Sparks Convention Center, a place she had checked three times before.
In Bridges’ case, the fourth time’s a charm.
When she entered the convention center Wednesday, she asked staff not to let Louis know she was there. She walked up behind him and rubbed his back, something she does often, as a volunteer was holding his hand, guiding him back from the restroom.
“He (Louis) was like, ‘This is weird: There’s a guy holding my hand, rubbing my back,’ ” Bridges said. “Then I said, ‘Mr. Louis, it’s me.’ He goes, ‘I know that voice.’ I then said, ‘Are you going to marry me or what?’ ”
Louis grabbed her and the two hugged, even though Louis knows Bridges is not a big hugger.
“That’s the first time he did that,” Bridges said.
The two were put up in a room at a Reno-area Motel 6, where Louis took his first shower since he was shuttled to Reno.
“I was thankful that I found him,” Bridges said. “He is just peculiar about who helps him with certain things.”
The Caldor Fire has burned more than 330 square miles since Aug. 14, with containment at 32 percent as of Friday night.
After vowing to take care of Louis two years ago, Bridges remembered a saying her father instilled in her to lead her on her search.
“I was not going to sleep until I knew he was able to sleep comfortably,” Bridges said Friday, sitting next to Louis on the edge of a bed in their room. “We slept good last night.”