When Michael Hicks took ownership of Strawberry Lodge nearly 20 years ago, he knew fire was a possibility.
The historic lodge, tucked along Highway 50 in the tiny town of Strawberry, has burned three times since its first iteration in 1858, Hicks said.
But that history didn’t do anything to ease his concerns Saturday, as the raging Caldor fire burning near South Lake Tahoe moved within striking distance of Strawberry. Fire officials said the northeastern front of the more than 149,600-acre blaze was within a mile and a half of the town, and crews were working hard and fast to lay containment lines in an effort to stop it.
“Hopefully they’ll be able to save at least the main building,” said Hicks, who evacuated to nearby South Lake Tahoe more than a week ago. “But it’ll depend on the firefighters and the winds, and we’ll see what happens.”
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.
Just above the snowline of the Sierra Nevada and about 30 miles from Tahoe, Strawberry Lodge has been a respite on the trek to the mountains since it was a Pony Express stop in the late 1880s, then catering to silver miners searching for their fortunes.
Though the years have taken their toll — the carpet is now worn and threadbare, and even the taxidermy bear fiercely greeting guests seems a bit tired — it is no less beloved to the locals and visitors who came more for the long, dim bar than for the accommodations.
And that bar was rarely empty. Weary parents from nearby Camp Sacramento, the city camp that drew generations of families year after year, would sneak in for a cocktail while counselors watched the kids. Winter sledders and summer rock climbers and mountain bikers would end their journeys with a burger and a beer, and residents of the tract of cabins that lined the nearby creek and American River gathered on cold nights near its stone fireplace, where kids could find board games and a cheap pool table.
But now the lodge’s history — and Hicks’ future — hang in the balance as the flames creep closer. A year shy of 70, he had finally decided to retire and put the family-run business up for sale. He’s in escrow with the new owners, he said, but no one is certain about what will happen next.
“It’s never good timing, but this was probably worse than most,” Hicks said.
Conditions in Strawberry on Saturday were nearly apocalyptic. The sickly yellow smoke spewing from the fire was thick enough to send even the bugs scrambling, and ash rained down on the lodge’s rusted sign.
Jay Smith, an information officer with the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection, said he was “cautiously optimistic” that Strawberry would be safe. There are about 500 cabins tucked into the surrounding forested hills, and protecting them is firefighters’ top priority.
“I’m pretty confident that we are going to be able to slow, if not stop that from coming this way,” Smith said.
Yet only minutes later, flames appeared at the top of a ridge behind him and quickly began working their way down the mountain. An hour after that, a spot fire ignited on the hillside abutting the lodge, sending fire roaring through the trees.
Hicks said the new buyers of the lodge — who planned to maintain much of its historic charm — have told him they were still interested in the purchase, although he was unsure whether they would feel the same way should the worst-case scenario occur. A representative for the buyer, an international real estate firm, did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
Managing the lodge has been both joyful and challenging as California’s climate-driven conflagrations have gotten worse, Hicks said. The cost of his fire insurance more than quadrupled from $22,000 to $92,000 over the last two years.
His eight employees have scattered due to the evacuation. He was only able to grab an armful of items before evacuating himself — leaving countless bits of hundred-year-old memorabilia to fate.
On the front lines of battle to keep Caldor fire from hitting Lake Tahoe
But many are rooting for the lodge and for Strawberry. David “Squirrel” Schlosser, who owns the general store across the street — virtually the only other business in the 50-person town — described it as a close-knit community where people are eager to lend a helping hand.
A 16-year resident of Strawberry, he said he “just kind of knew” wildfire was inevitable. He and his wife did all they could to clear defensible space around the store, as well as their home a block away, before evacuating to a friend’s place in North Lake Tahoe.
“We did the best we can,” Schlosser said.
Now he and the rest of Strawberry’s residents and loyal visitors will have little choice but to wait.
On the Strawberry Lodge Facebook page, a post about the fire garnered more than 90 concerned comments from people who had visited with family and friends, including several people who posted photos of their wedding.
“Praying that they will save Strawberry Lodge that is part of our family history and the town,” one person wrote.
“Strawberry has a very special place in my heart; so many wonderful memories in my youth,” wrote another.
On Saturday, those memories hung in the balance as firefighters worked to contain the encroaching flames. By dusk, the spot fire on the ridge had grown larger and was simmering its way in the direction of the property.
Firefighters were working fast, but sometimes Mother Nature has other plans.
“Hopefully they can save as much of the community as possible,” Hicks said. “But that, again, is up to the winds and the firefighters.”
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