Caldor Fire Intensifies and Evacuations Are Ordered Near Lake Tahoe

Wildfire that had burned through remote areas in the Sierra Nevada for two weeks crossed a ridge on Monday and began to descend towards major population centers along Lake Tahoe.

As the fire at Caldor intensified in dry and windy conditions, thousands of people were ordered to evacuate along the south and west banks of the lake. Firefighters rushed to put out local fires just a few miles from South Lake Tahoe, California.

Typically during the summer months, tourists flock to the lake on the California-Nevada border for boating, fishing, hiking, eating, and drinking. But at sunset on Monday the church seemed to have stood still.

Shops and stores – motels, restaurants, supermarkets – were deserted on streets that had only been congested hours before. The streets were empty except for fire engines and TV reporters who documented the eerie calm.

It was impossible to know when, if ever, the fire would reach the city. But people didn’t stay to test the fury of a fire that firefighters estimate could threaten more than 20,000 buildings.

Public safety officials warned the Caldor fire, the youngest in California during a particularly unforgiving summer for firefighters in the west, showed no sign of giving way. It had burned more than 177,000 acres and was 14 percent contained on Monday.

The mandatory evacuation zone stretched from Tahoma, California, on the west bank of the lake to the Nevada border. “I think there were some tense moments today for our citizens of South Lake Tahoe,” said David Stevenson, the city’s chief police officer, during a press conference Monday night.

Starting Tuesday through September 17th, almost all California National Forests will be closed for public safety reasons. The National Weather Service issued a red flag warning for the northern Sierra Nevada and southern Cascades, meaning extremely dry conditions and gusts of wind up to 55 miles per hour are likely to cause forest fires to spread in the mountains.

The warning applies until 11 p.m. on Wednesday for the area that was shrouded in haze on Monday. The smoke from the fire has worsened the air quality to an unhealthy level, said the US Forest Service.

Firefighters battled fires on Monday on a dozen-mile stretch of an old Pony Express route connecting gold rush towns along the heavily forested western slopes of the Sierra Nevada. In some places, the crews drew water from the American River to put out local fires and protect the cabins along Highway 50.

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Aug. 30, 2021, 6:09 p.m. ET

Even at 5,000 feet, afternoon temperatures in the 1990s were unusually hot for the Sierra. Fireplaces were burning on both sides of the street.

In the heart of the fire, the sky was orange and the valleys a thick slate of impenetrable smoke.

Along the granite boulders that descend to the Lake Tahoe Basin, firefighters chased a point fire that had ignited on the slopes toward South Lake Tahoe. Firefighters and city officials had hoped the granite wall would act as a shield for communities along Lake Tahoe. But winds carried embers that leaped down the cliffs.

Many evacuees faced bumper traffic after several major roads in the area were closed. Photos showed cars standing still on Highway 50, the main thoroughfare along the southeastern shore of the lake.

Chief Stevenson said he was stuck on Highway 50 for about three and a half hours Monday.

“I am so grateful that our citizens listened to the warning and order and evacuated the city,” he said.

Known for its sapphire blue waters and evergreen bays, the lake is particularly popular with Bay Area vacationers. It is home to several famous ski resorts and casinos located just across the South Lake Tahoe border in Stateline, Nevada. Several concerts scheduled for this week at Harveys Lake Tahoe Casino have been postponed due to the risk of fire.

Although forest fires occur every year in the west, scientists see the impact of climate change in the extreme heat waves that contributed to the intensity of the fires this summer. Long periods with unusually high temperatures are a signal for a change in climate, it is said.

When the Caldor Fire threatened Lake Tahoe, the Dixie Fire, the largest single origin in California history, raged on in the northern part of the state. That fire had burned more than 771,000 acres in five counties by Monday and was about 48 percent contained, according to Cal Fire.

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