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Lake Tahoe faces disastrous ‘urban conflagration’ if Caldor fire reaches communities

The Caldor fire is closing in on the Lake Tahoe Basin and threatening the popular resort area.

As firefighters make an all-out push to keep the Caldor fire out of Lake Tahoe, experts warned of potentially catastrophic losses if flames move into neighborhoods along the famed lakeside resort.

Were embers to take hold in the Tahoe valley, it could cause a disastrous “urban conflagration,” said Crystal Kolden, a fire scientist at UC Merced.

She noted that the Alpine village is full of old homes and log cabins with shake roofs, wooden porches and buildups of pine cones and needles.

Thousands rushed to leave South Lake Tahoe as the resort city came under an evacuation order due to the Caldor fire.

“It’s so dry that it is perfect kindling,” she said. “You’ve got his potential for it to really start jumping from building to building to building, and it’s just a completely different beast and they can’t fight it.”

For days, the big question has been whether the fire will jump the large granite ridge that stands between it and populous South Lake Tahoe. Many residents hoped that the stony topography would act as a buffer.

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Evacuation traffic backs up in South Lake Tahoe
(Andy Barron / Associated Press)

But Monday’s evacuation order was a worrisome indication that crews could be losing footing on the wind-whipped fire. The National Weather Service has issued red flag warnings indicating gusty wind conditions in the area from 11 a.m. through 11 p.m. Tuesday.

Jason Hunter, a Caldor fire information officer, said Monday that the fire was still holding to the west of that ridge but worried that strong winds just beginning to pick up could generate spot fires and unpredictable behavior.

In the last few days, the fire has been spotting — or producing sparks that are carried by the wind and start new fires — about half a mile ahead of itself, but crews are expecting that distance to expand to more than a mile on Monday due to wind, he said.

“Our significant concern is that spotting,” he said. Specifically, crews were worried about “embers being blown from up at the ridge top landing somewhere down in the valley and taking hold.”

Concern about the potential for disaster is mounting far beyond Tahoe’s typically emerald shores.

The fire’s advance has alarmed President Biden’s administration, which has otherwise been preoccupied by Hurricane Ida on the Gulf Coast.

“We are tracking the wildfires,” White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki said at a Monday press briefing. She added, “We will continue to assess if additional resources are needed.”

The Caldor fire is one of more than a dozen fires burning in California, according to the California Department of Forestry and Fire Prevention.

Hunter said crews on Monday were making tactical fire stops along the Highway 50 corridor on Echo Summit in an effort to get ahead of further creep.

“The fire blew up yesterday at a significant rate of spread and critical growth,” he said. “The winds picked up significantly up in the higher elevations, [and are] still pushing it in that northeasterly direction.”


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