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Lake Tahoe resort an eerie ghost town covered by smoke as Caldor fire burns closer

Smoke from the Caldor fire covers Lake Tahoe.
Smoke from the Caldor fire covers Lake Tahoe at Incline Village in Nevada.
(Andy Barron / Reno Gazette-Journal)

South Lake Tahoe was a ghost town Wednesday as thick smoke and swirling ash from the Caldor fire blanketed what is typically a bustling tourist destination.

Houses on pine-lined streets were shuttered against the acrid air, while popular areas such as El Dorado Beach sat vacant beneath an orange-gray sky. At one marina by the lake’s shore, a handwritten sign was tied to a locked gate: “Closed today due to smoke.” The lake, usually glistening, was choppy and dark.

Julie Vlasis was one of only a handful of people in the nearby downtown area.

A longtime seasonal resident, she said she was more concerned about the smoke and fire conditions than she’s ever been.

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

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A spot fire threatened the community of Twin Bridges, about nine miles from the shore of Lake Tahoe, prompting evacuation warnings.

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

Those tourists were nowhere in sight — and likely won’t be showing up anytime soon, said Mike Papa, the sole worker at the Lake Tahoe Visitors Authority.

Papa said the air quality has gotten so dangerous that he had no choice but to advise callers to stay away.

“We market Tahoe to the world, but I’ve got to be honest with them,” he said.

South Lake Tahoe is usually alive with bicyclists, beachgoers and hikers at this time of year, Papa said. But with the nearby forests closed and the ash falling like snow, there is little left for people to do.

Even the Heavenly Gondola — a reliable fixture that circles the area throughout the year — is shuttered because of the smoke.

One couple who drove in with their family from Redwood City this week said they didn’t realize it would be quite so bad.

They watched as their toddler played alone in an empty playground and said they would probably leave soon.

Others said they were keeping a close watch on the fire, which is threatening the nearby community of Twin Bridges as the massive blaze pushes closer to Lake Tahoe.

Since igniting more than a week ago, the Caldor fire has swelled to more than 136,000 acres, with explosive growth over the weekend. It has burned at least 461 homes, 11 commercial buildings and 165 minor structures, authorities say.

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 the Twin Bridges area is not yet imminent and that firefighters were continuing to prioritize the eastern end of the blaze.

James Donaghue, 36, was visiting from Oxford, England, for work. He and a friend were trying to make use of a table outside a coffee shop, but kept having to brush ash off the surface as they spoke.

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


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