All-out fight to save South Lake Tahoe as Caldor fire forces evacuation warnings
The Caldor fire has swelled past 143,000 acres and continues to burn toward South Lake Tahoe, where evacuation warnings have people on high alert.
Fueled by low humidity and gusty winds, the Caldor fire on Friday continued to close in on South Lake Tahoe, where the threat of the fire has triggered evacuation warnings and sent residents and vacationers packing as toxic smoke converges over the region.
Heading west on Highway 50 from the tiny town of Strawberry — toward the fire’s northeastern edge — was an exercise in blind faith, as even the nearest of pine trees were obscured by sickly yellow smoke. Charred branches and fallen rocks dotted the roadside, and small spot fires seemed agitated by even the slightest hint of wind.
Despite the eye-burning smoke, crews were working fast and hard with one major goal in mind: to prevent the massive blaze from sweeping down into the basin of South Lake Tahoe.
“We’re trying to keep it west of the 89, and definitely trying to keep it from Lake Tahoe,” said Rosie Smith, an assistant engine operator with the U.S. Forest Service. “It’s just the extreme fire behavior that we’ve had over the last few weeks has made it difficult for us really to get ahead of the thing.”
As the destructive Caldor fire creeps closer to the popular resort area, the boaters, hikers and beach-goers who typically descend on South Lake Tahoe have all but vanished.
Much of the growth in last 24 hours occurred along the northeastern portion of the blaze — directly toward the southern end of the Lake Tahoe Basin — where the fire raced rapidly up steep terrain and began torching tree tops, fire officials said.
The flames were initially about 14 miles from South Lake Tahoe, but by Friday morning the fire “did advance a little bit closer,” said Capt. Stephen Horner, a public information officer for the fire. After igniting nearly two weeks ago, the fire has surged past 143,000 acres and is only 12% contained.
With the fire nearing the popular vacation destination, officials have scrambled to protect it. Crews along the road leading to Twin Bridges were laying hand lines and dragging bulldozers through forested terrain, hardly seeming to notice the swirling ash and smoke.
But in the stand to save Lake Tahoe, officials said there are several factors working in their favor — including changing topography, slowing winds and a large granite ridge between the town and the flames. But climate-driven wildfire behavior has been so erratic this year that nearly anything is possible.
“Our winds are going to be lower today than they were yesterday, but we also have high temperatures and decreased humidity,” said Jason Hunter, a Caldor fire information officer. “We’re focusing a lot of efforts up here, a lot of resources on this side of the fire.”
As he spoke, simmering flames on the forest floor behind him caught a gust of wind and roared up the spine of a nearby tree.
“The granite gives us the benefit of less fuels, so it slows the rate of spread for the fire and gives us the chance to make a direct attack, potentially,” he said.
But while the ridge could help slow the fire’s progress, it’s not impossible for the flames to jump it — especially if winds pick up again. That’s why crews are also banking on topography to assist: The other side of the ridge is a downhill slope that leads into the Tahoe basin, and wildfires don’t move downhill as quickly as they move up, Hunter said.
Even so, authorities issued evacuation warnings for communities within the southern end of the Tahoe Basin. South Lake Tahoe city officials declared a local emergency, and the Lake Tahoe Visitors Authority advised visitors to postpone travel plans.
Smoke from the Caldor and other large areas fires has choked the region for days, leaving residents and vacationers to contend with blackened skies and toxic air. Poor air quality prompted the closure of schools in Douglas County, just across state lines in Nevada, on Friday, according to local reports.
Many people have already left town, leaving what’s typically a bustling Labor Day vacation haven eerily empty. Others have shut their windows and doors tight to keep out harmful particulate matter in the air. Communities along the Highway 50 corridor are evacuated from Pollock Pines all the way to Echo Summit, and everything between Echo Summit and Highway 89 in the Christmas Valley — in South Lake Tahoe — is now under an evacuation warning.
One Christmas Valley resident, Jenn Motto, estimated that half of her neighbors had already left.
Motto spent most of Friday afternoon clearing brush and pinecones from her property to create more defensible space, and her cars were packed and ready to go if need be.
“This is one of the things we signed up for when we moved here,” said Motto, a former L.A. resident who came to the South Lake Tahoe area in 2008.
One of her concerns was that there aren’t many roads out of Christmas Valley or South Lake Tahoe — especially since a large portion of Highway 50 has been closed. Her other concern was wind.
“It changes so quickly here, and it can howl, so I’m worried about the embers,” she said. “But this is our home, and we love it and we want to stay until they tell us we have to go.”
A spot fire threatened the community of Twin Bridges, about nine miles from the shore of Lake Tahoe, prompting evacuation warnings.
Firefighters on Friday remained optimistic that a change in the landscape would work in their favor, engine Capt. Mike Loeffler said.
“The fuel goes hot through this stuff,” Loeffler said as he motioned toward the manzanita brush, ponderosa pine and cedar trees surrounding his truck. “Up there near the ridge, you’ve got a lot of fir trees and a lot more spare open areas because it’s a higher elevation. There’s more opportunities to try to catch [the fire].”
And while Tahoe remains a primary focus, crews also said the most imminent threat is Strawberry, as well as about 50 cabins in a nearby tract of Eldorado National Forest, which they were working quickly to protect.
Firefighters were confident that they could get a handle on the fire before it reached more homes or structures, but they also acknowledged that California’s fire season has been anything but predictable this year.
“We saw a big flare up earlier, and we could feel the heat through our bus,” said Patrick McLaughlin, a firefighter with the Eel River crew of the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation.
McLaughlin said the Caldor fire was his 25th fire in two seasons, and noted that it is hasn’t been uncommon to see embers catch on the other side of hand or dozer lines.
As the 136,000-acre Caldor fire pushes closer to Lake Tahoe resort areas, tourists venues are shut down.
More and more firefighters have been called in to attack the blaze, now considered the No. 1 priority in the nation due to the number of residents, property and infrastructure it’s threatening. On Friday, there were 3,200 personnel working on containing the fire — an increase from roughly 2,900 on Thursday — and more than 18,000 structures were under threat.
Crews were actively working to identify locations where the fire could jump containment lines and put in contingency — or backup — resources, Horner said. Spot fires have ignited consistently since the blaze began, with winds pushing embers into dry, receptive terrain. Firefighters are also constructing larger containment lines and dropping retardant and water from above when conditions allow, officials said.
Flames on Friday were forecast to pass through Pollock Pines, a community along the northwest portion of the fire, and firefighters for the last few days were “prepping the area for the fire coming toward all those homes,” including bringing in more equipment and personnel, Horner said.
Capt. Casey Hoffman with the El Dorado National Forest said firefighting work has been exceptionally busy the last five years as the state has gotten drier and hotter.
“There’s a lot more fires, and a lot of wind-driven fires,” he said, as he leaned on his shovel for a brief rest before heading back downhill to the line. “Everything is receptive.”
Winds that have plagued the burn area were supposed to abate, but on Thursday afternoon gusts up to 30 mph struck the northeast edge of the fire, Horner said. Flames that were just “skunking around” shot up to elevations of about 6,800 feet north of Highway 50, he said. It set tree tops aflame — known as crowning — drastically increasing temperatures and the rate of fire spread.
When the gusts struck, the sun was out, an inversion layer over the fire had lifted and the air was bone-dry — all conditions that made it “primed for ignition,” Horner said, adding that he watched the activity in real time: “It was moving fast, really increased temperatures.”
At that point, the only way to slow the blaze is to drop retardant and water on it from the air, he said. Crews dropped roughly 20,000 gallons of retardant in the northeastern area alone on Thursday, he said.
Temperatures in the region are heating up, though Horner said it can be hard to gauge when you’re under large plumes of smoke sent up by the flames. “When you’re in the smoke ... you can’t even see the sky or the sun, the sun is turning orange,” he said.
When it comes to protecting Strawberry, Tahoe and other communities, fire crews on Friday were optimistic that they will have the resources they need and the ability to prevent a worst-case scenario.
They just hope they can find a way to turn that corner soon.
“We’re doing the best we can with what we have,” said Smith, the assistant engine operator. “There’s other forests that are having just as hard of a time, and there’s only so many of us.”
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