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Caldor fire approaches Lake Tahoe; residents brace for the worst

A boat on a lake amid smoke.
Smoke from the Caldor fire shrouds Fallen Leaf Lake near South Lake Tahoe on Tuesday. The massive wildfire is now less than 20 miles from Lake Tahoe.
(Rich Pedroncelli / Associated Press)

The destructive Caldor fire moved closer to Lake Tahoe on Wednesday, leaving residents of the famed vacation resort area bracing for the worst while dealing with intense smoke that already prompted some to leave.

A dwindling number of tourists braved worsening conditions. Thick smoke and swirling ash blanketed the normally bustling tourist town, and homes on pine-lined streets were shuttered against the acrid air.

Popular areas such as El Dorado Beach were deserted beneath an orange-gray sky.

Julie Vlasis, a longtime seasonal resident of South Lake Tahoe, said her anxiety was high.

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“We’ve seen smoke before, fire before, but not like this,” Vlasis, 62, said.

She and her husband, Nick, were trying to make the most of the situation by posing for photos at an oversize ski chair, which they said is usually surrounded by a long line of tourists vying for the same shot.

But those tourists were nowhere in sight Wednesday and probably won’t be showing up soon, said Mike Papa, the sole worker at the Lake Tahoe Visitors Authority.

Air quality was so dangerous that he had no choice but to advise callers to stay away, Papa said.

Officials at the Lake Valley Fire Protection District, headquartered in South Lake Tahoe, were on high alert.

“We’re concerned about it affecting our cabins, our homes up on top of Echo Summit,” said Brad Zlendick, chief of the fire protection district, during a community meeting Tuesday.

He said local fire officials were also concerned about the threat to the community of Meyers.

A spot fire on the northeastern edge of the blaze threatened the community of Twin Bridges, about nine miles from the shore of the lake, prompting evacuation warnings.

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The blaze crept closer throughout the day, blanketing the lake in smoke.

Winds gusted up to 25 mph from the south and southwest Wednesday morning, pushing the fire east and northeast, directly toward Lake Tahoe, but they were expected to abate somewhat later in the day. Temperatures were forecast to heat up beginning Thursday, which could spur the fire.

The Caldor fire has burned more than 117,000 acres and destroyed at least 455 homes.

Since igniting more than a week ago, the Caldor fire has swelled to more than 126,000 acres, with explosive growth over the weekend. It has burned at least 461 homes, 11 commercial buildings and 165 minor structures.

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At least 17,000 structures are threatened by the conflagration, which is 12% contained .

Dana Walsh, a spokesperson for the Caldor fire with the U.S. Forest Service, said that the threat to Twin Bridges is not yet imminent, and that firefighters were continuing to prioritize the eastern end of the blaze.

The spot fire near Twin Bridges was relatively small but could grow, with vegetation “very dry, easily ignitable,” Walsh said.

For many residents in Northern California, summer has now become a time of dread due to extreme wildfires.

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Officials said they were ready to evacuate the area between Twin Bridges and Echo Summit if necessary. At that point, an evacuation warning would be triggered for a portion of the South Lake Tahoe Basin, meaning that residents would need to be ready to leave on a moment’s notice.

Nearly 30,000 residents have fled their homes since the fire ignited Aug. 14 and began chewing its way through El Dorado County.

Firefighters, meanwhile, continued to focus on trapping the blaze west of Highway 89, a north-south artery that borders the western edge of Lake Tahoe. A portion of Highway 50, a major east-west corridor in the region, remains closed because of fire activity.

They are also battling flames along the southwestern edge of the fire, not far from where it began Aug. 14, tearing through the community of Grizzly Flats days later.

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Much of California is experiencing “extreme” or “exceptional” drought conditions, with vegetation parched and primed to burn. Several large wildfires this year have charred more than 1.6 million acres across the state and sent toxic smoke as far as the East Coast. Air quality around South Lake Tahoe has plummeted in recent days, and areas near Reno reported record-breaking levels of hazardous air.

Now the smoke from a dozen raging fires in Northern California is making its way south, creating potentially hazardous air quality for the Los Angeles area — hundreds of miles south of the Caldor blaze.

The South Coast Air Quality Management District has issued an advisory through Thursday morning for large portions of Los Angeles, Riverside and San Bernardino counties.

“Wildfires in northern and central California are producing heavy smoke that is being transported into the South Coast Air Basin and the Coachella Valley,” the agency said, adding that effects will be strongest in mountain areas, the Inland Empire and the Coachella Valley.

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Despite warnings to stay away, a handful of tourists tried to make the best of the deteriorating conditions in South Lake Tahoe.

One family drove in from Redwood City but didn’t realize the situation would be quite so bad, its members said. They watched as their toddler played alone in an empty playground and said they would probably leave soon.

James Donaghue, 36, was visiting from Oxford, England, for work.

He stood outside a coffee shop with a friend, continually brushing ash off the table’s surface as they spoke.

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“You hear about the fires in California on the news, but you don’t think about the things like the smoke and the ash,” Donaghue said. “Seeing this really puts it in a new perspective.”

Down by the water’s edge, a handwritten sign was tied to a locked gate.

“Closed today due to smoke,” it said.

And Lake Tahoe, usually pristine and glistening, was choppy and dark against the orange-gray sky.


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