California fire approaches Lake Tahoe after mass evacuation

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Firefighters attempt to protect a home near Santa Claus Drive during the Caldor Blaze near Meyers, Calif. On Tuesday, August 31, 2021. The Caldor Blaze has moved closer to a popular alpine tourist destination in the northern California on Monday, prompting authorities to order the evacuation of the resort town of South Lake Tahoe.

David Odisho | Bloomberg | Getty Images

A huge firefighting force gathered on Tuesday to defend Lake Tahoe from a wildfire that forced the evacuation of California communities at the southern end of the Alpine resort and put other people in cross the Nevada state border to warn them to be ready to flee.

The streets of the popular resort, normally filled with thousands of summer tourists, were virtually deserted after the rapid growth of the Caldor fire forced a massive evacuation from South Lake Tahoe on Monday and triggered hours of blocked traffic. The parking lots of the motels along the city’s main thoroughfare were empty.

At a Nevada evacuation center, Lorie Major said she had packed a bag in preparation for her departure and was at the grocery store when she received the alert on her phone.

“I must have been like, ‘OK, Lorie: come together. Time to go,'” she said Tuesday from the Douglas County Community & Senior Center in Gardnerville, Nevada.

She put on headphones, turned on Grateful Dead’s “Fire on the Mountain” and walked home to an empty apartment complex already vacated by neighbors. She and her mini Australian Shepherd, Koda, took a 20-mile cab ride from her apartment in South Lake Tahoe to a hotel in Minden, Nevada.

Driven by high winds, the Caldor fire crossed two major highways and burned down mountain cabins as it hurtled down the slopes of the Tahoe Basin. More firefighters arrived just after dark on Monday, and many were dispatched to protect homes in the Christmas Valley area, about 10 miles from the town of South Lake Tahoe.

A cabin burns in the Caldor Fire near Phillips, Calif. On August 29, 2021.

Fred Greaves | Reuters

Heavy smoke has periodically hampered aerial firefighting operations over the past week. But since then nearly two dozen helicopters and three tankers have released thousands of gallons of water and fire retardant, firefighter spokesman Dominic Polito said on Tuesday.

The National Weather Service has warned of critical weather conditions for the fires until Wednesday due to strong gusts, very low humidity and extremely dry fuel.

As the flames moved toward South Lake Tahoe, residents just over the Nevada state border faced evacuation warnings. Nevada Gov. Steve Sisolak declared a state of emergency on Monday, citing the high risk of the California fire burning in his state.

At a press conference Tuesday in Carson City, about 20 miles from the blaze, he said there was no timeline for when evacuations could be ordered. He noticed ashes were falling on his jacket.

“I stand here and even get all the ash particles on my jacket,” the governor said. “It’s serious, folks. It’s extremely serious.”

Casino regulators were monitoring the operations of the four largest gaming properties in Stateline, the Nevada city adjacent to South Lake Tahoe, said Kelly Colvin, chief audit officer of the Nevada Gaming Control Board.

The game has been drastically reduced as staff are limited due to mandatory evacuations in California, said Michael Lawton, board analyst and spokesperson.

The hotels accommodate evacuees and firefighters. In total, Harrah’s, Harveys Lake Tahoe Casino, the Hard Rock and Montbleu Resort have more than 2,200 hotel rooms.

Evacuation shelters at community centers in Carson City and Douglas County were at full capacity, officials said on Tuesday. Additional venues were opened at a park in Carson City, the Reno Sparks Convention Center and a rodeo event center in Dayton and the Lyon County Fairgrounds in Yerington.

At the Gardnerville Seniors Center, people had their temperatures checked and answered questions about the coronavirus before entering a camp bed gymnasium set up by the Red Cross. Outside, evacuees who had stayed in tents sorted through ramen noodles and plastic bags of clothing and souvenirs.

The threat of fire is so widespread that the US Forest Service announced Monday that all of California’s national forests will be closed until September 17.

“We are not taking this decision lightly, but it is the best choice for public safety,” said Jennifer Eberlien, regional forester.

More than 15,000 firefighters were fighting dozens of fires in California, including teams from Utah, Washington, Wisconsin and West Virginia, said Mark Ghilarducci, director of the California Emergency Services Bureau. Louisiana crews had to return to that state because of Hurricane Ida, he said.

Only twice in California history have fires burned from one side of the Sierra Nevada to the other this month, along with the Caldor and Dixie Fires, Porter said.

Fire crews worked through the night to prevent the Caldor fires from spreading after being spotted on US Highway 89 in the early evening in California on August 30, 2021. Lake Tahoe.

Neal Waters | Anadolu Agency | Getty Images

The Dixie, the second largest wildfire in state history at 1,215 square miles, was burning about 65 miles north of the Lake Tahoe area blaze. It prompted new evacuation orders and warnings on Monday.

The Lake Tahoe area is generally a year-round recreational haven offering beaches, water sports, hiking, ski resorts, and golf. South Lake Tahoe is full of outdoor activities.

The last two wildfires to ravage populated areas near Tahoe were the Angora fire which destroyed more than 200 homes in 2007 and the 2002 gondola fire which ignited near a chairlift to Heavenly Mountain Resort.

Since then, dead trees have piled up and the area has faced severe droughts, Wallace said. Climate change has made the West much hotter and drier over the past 30 years and will continue to make weather more extreme and forest fires more frequent and destructive, scientists say.

The California Highway Patrol has added agents to help guide the chaotic traffic out of South Lake Tahoe. Traffic crawled at times on Highway 50, which is the main thoroughfare, on Monday, but had cleared by the afternoon.

Only a tiny fraction of the town’s residents – 20 people – refused to evacuate, said Lindsey Baker, spokesperson for South Lake Tahoe. She said the traffic jam indicated people were following orders to flee.

The Caldor Fire has burned nearly 300 square miles since it appeared on August 14. After the fierce weekend fire, containment fell from 19% to 16%.

More than 600 structures have been destroyed and at least 33,000 others have been threatened.


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