The Caldor fire continued its slow march toward the Lake Tahoe resort region on Friday, as crews worked in rugged terrain to hold the lines of the blaze.
Winds and temperatures are expected to pick up in coming days while humidity drops, adding to the challenges faced by firefighters working in the dense Sierra Nevada forest.
Fueled by gusty winds and rising temperatures, the fire had already consumed more than 143,900 acres and destroyed 469 homes by Friday morning. It was 12% contained.
The fire has been the nation’s top firefighting priority because of its proximity to Lake Tahoe. Home to thousands, the alpine lake on the California-Nevada border is a prime tourist destination that has been particularly popular during the pandemic.
By Thursday evening, the fire was less than 14 miles removed from communities on the south end of the lake, said Stephen Horner, of Cal Fire.
If the fire continues its path, fire crews plan to make a stand at Echo Summit, a mountain pass where US Route 50 begins its descent toward Lake Tahoe. Despite the difficult conditions, officials felt optimistic that they could keep the flames from reaching the area.
“Everything’s holding real good along Highway 50,” said the Cal Fire operations section chief Cody Bogan. “The fire has been backing down real slowly … we’ve just been allowing it to do it on its own speed. It’s working in our favor.”
“It does look very optimistic and firefighters are working very hard, along with contingency resources that have been sent to that area,” added Horner.
The Caldor fire is one of nearly 90 large blazes in the US. There were more than a dozen big fires in California alone, including one that destroyed 18 homes in southern California.
Red flag warnings indicating high risks of extreme fire weather were issued by the National Weather Service through Saturday morning as gusty winds and low humidity could threaten new ignitions in the northern and central Sacramento Valley, extending from the Mendocino national forest through parts of Shasta national forest.
Climate change has made the west warmer and drier in the past 30 years and will continue to make the weather more extreme and wildfires more destructive, according to scientists.
Fires in California have destroyed about 2,000 structures and forced thousands to evacuate while also blanketing large swaths of the west in unhealthy smoke.
A new fire broke out Thursday in the Sierra foothills, forcing evacuations near the historic Gold Rush town of Sonora, just dozens of miles from Yosemite national park.
In the Tahoe region, the lake, known for its water clarity and the granite peaks that surround it, has been shrouded in dense smoke that has reached hazardous levels.
By Friday morning, the Air Quality Index showed AQI levels of up to 530 in areas of South Lake Tahoe and readings higher than 1,100 in towns that hug Highway 50 where the fire is actively burning.
The Lake Tahoe Visitors Authority has recommended tourists postpone their travel.
“This is the week before Labor Day weekend, a busy weekend, normally,” said Joe Irvin, South Lake Tahoe city manager, . “That is not going to be the case this year.”
Johnny White and Lauren McCauley left their home near Echo Summit on Thursday after seeing flames on the webcam at their local ski resort.
Even as ash rained down under a cloud of heavy smoke, the couple wasn’t panicked because they had an early warning to leave, and wanted to avoid last-minute pandemonium.
“You don’t want everyone in the basin panicking and scrambling to try and leave at the same time,” McCauley said.
Retired fire district captain Joe McAvoy, who lost his own home in the fire, said wildfires larger than 100,000 acres were once-in-a-lifetime events in his career. Not any more.
“Now it seems like they’re all 100,000 acres,“ McAvoy said. It’s way more extreme … Now [fires] are 100,000 acres and it’s like, ‘Oh, yeah, big deal.’ You know, it’s every fire.”