Thousands of firefighters are battling to stop a ferocious wildfire from reaching Lake Tahoe, after evacuations forced the residents of a popular resort city to flee.
Fueled by strong winds, the Caldor fire continued its sweep down the slopes of the Sierra Nevada mountains overnight, its footprint swelling to more than 191,600 acres burned by Tuesday morning. Strong winds had pushed the fire across California highways 50 and 89 the day before, burning several mountain cabins on its path.
“[The fire] did progress into neighborhoods across highway 89 and has come down off the summit and those areas of Christmas Valley,” Stephen Horner of Cal Fire said Tuesday morning.
Crews are working “like crazy” to prevent the fire from moving further towards the resort city of South Lake Tahoe, Horner said. But winds are expected to be gusty and conditions will continue to complicate the firefight. “The fuels are just primed for that ignition,” he said.
On Monday, thousands of residents and visitors to the town of South Lake Tahoe rushed to leave their homes as the fire drew closer, prompting chaotic scenes and clogged roads.
Monday’s evacuation orders were unheard of in the city, a popular vacation town home to more than 20,000.
“There is fire activity happening in California that we have never seen before,” said Thom Porter, director of the California Department of Forestry and Fire protection, known as Cal Fire. “For the rest of you in California: every acre can and will burn someday in this state.”
Ash rained down on long lines of cars gridlocked on the roads exiting South Lake Tahoe on Monday. Cars inched along through the smoky haze, some piled high with belongings and others towing trailers with bikes and other recreation equipment. Anxiety mounted with each gusty breeze, strong enough to shake the trees, reminding evacuees of the weather conditions that were fueling the blaze.
“I haven’t moved in half an hour,” said South Lake Tahoe resident Dick Kline from his truck while stuck in traffic. Trailered behind him, he brought his grandfather’s prized classic car knowing there was a chance that if he left it behind he’d never see it again. “I am sitting here watching all this ash come down on it but at least I am getting it out of here,” he said.
Up until that morning, Kline said, he didn’t think he’d have to leave. He’s been in the area since 1977 and has only had to evacuate once before. That time, he escaped with only the clothes he was wearing and his grandfather’s car.
Crews from all over California arrived in the Lake Tahoe basin on Monday, as firefighters make a desperate stand to save the resort communities on the lake and the neighborhoods tucked into the mountainsides. Many of the new firefighters were immediately dispatched to protect homes in the Christmas Valley area about 10 miles (16km) from South Lake Tahoe, said fire spokesman Dominic Polito.
“We’re flooding the area with resources,” he said. “Wherever there are structures, there are firefighters on the ground.”
Residents across the state line in Douglas county, Nevada, were under evacuation warnings. The Nevada governor, Steve Sisolak, on Monday declared a state of emergency in his state, citing “the anticipation” that the wildfire in the Tahoe area in California would burn across the state line.
The US forest service announced it would be closing down all national forests in California until 17 September. “We do not take this decision lightly but this is the best choice for public safety,” said Jennifer Eberlien, a regional forester.
Residents of South Lake Tahoe said fires in the past did not spread so rapidly near the tourist city. “It’s just yet another example of how wildfires have changed over the years,” said the city mayor, Tamara Wallis.
The last two wildfires that ripped through populated areas near Tahoe were the Angora fire that destroyed more than 200 homes in 2007 and the Gondola fire in 2002 that ignited near a chairlift at Heavenly Mountain Resort.
Since then, the dead trees have accumulated and the region has coped with serious droughts, Wallace said.
The Caldor fire has scorched nearly 292 sq miles (756 sq km) since breaking out on 14 August. The fire exploded in size over the weekend, with containment dropping from 19% to 16%.
More than 600 structures have been destroyed, and more than 33,500 were threatened. The fire leveled multiple homes Sunday along Highway 50, one of the main routes to the lake’s south end. It also roared through the Sierra-at-Tahoe ski resort, demolishing some buildings but leaving the main buildings at the base intact. Crews used snow-making machines to douse the ground. Cabins burned near the unincorporated community of Echo Lake.
The fire is one of at least a dozen raging across California. More than 15,000 firefighters were battling the fires, including crews from Utah, Washington, Wisconsin and West Virginia, said Mark Ghilarducci, director of California’s office of emergency services.
About 250 active-duty soldiers were being trained in Washington state to help with the arduous work of clearing forest debris by hand.
Crews from Louisiana, however, had to return to that state because of Hurricane Ida, “another major catastrophic event taking place in the country and is a pull on resources throughout the United States”, he said.
California has seen an early, and grueling start to its wildfire season. Porter of Cal Fire said that only twice in California history have blazes burned from one side of the Sierra Nevada to the other, both this month.
The Dixie fire, the second-largest wildfire in state history, has already destroyed 1,205 sq miles (3,121 sq km) north of the Lake Tahoe-area blaze.
Climate change has made the west much warmer and drier in the past 30 years and will continue to make weather more extreme and wildfires more frequent and destructive, scientists say.
Wallace, the South Lake Tahoe mayor, said traffic was crawling Monday, but praised the evacuation as orderly because residents heeded officials’ orders.
South Lake Tahoe resident John Larson said the evacuation probably went as smoothly as possible, considering how swiftly flames moved into the area.
“The fuel went so fast and it climbed the ridge so quick,” Larson said of the fire.
By mid-afternoon on Monday, many streets were silent and empty as evacuees cleared out, save for a few folks still feverishly loading cars, trucks and RVs with their things.
But for some, that just wasn’t an option.
Reel Duncan, a resident of more than 15 years, doesn’t have a vehicle. “It’s messed up, the evacuation for people who don’t have cars,” she said, adding that she’d heard there were going to be shuttles for people but was told they’d stopped running earlier in the day.
Diane Kinney, who has lived in the city since the 1970s, said this is the first time her neighborhood has been ordered to evacuate. “Everybody wants to live in Lake Tahoe. There are definitely advantages of being in the mountains, being with these beautiful pine trees,” she said. “But we definitely have to get out now.”
The Associated Press contributed to this report.