SOUTH LAKE TAHOE, Calif .– A fierce wildfire swept across Lake Tahoe on Tuesday just hours after roads were blocked by fleeing cars when the entire California resort town of South Lake Tahoe was ordered to evacuate and communities just across the Nevada border have been warned to prepare to leave.
The popular vacation paradise normally filled with tens of thousands of summer tourists emptied on Monday as the massive Caldor fire spread rapidly. Vehicles loaded with bicycles and camping gear and transport boats were in blocked traffic, wedged in a hazy, brown air that smelled of a campfire. Police and other emergency vehicles rushed past.
“It’s more out of control than I thought,” evacuee Glen Naasz said of the blaze that was driven by high winds on California highways 50 and 89 on Monday night, burning cabins in mountain as it hurtled down the slopes of the Tahoe Basin.
Additional strike crews arrived just after dark and many new firefighters were immediately dispatched to protect homes in the Christmas Valley area about 10 miles from South Lake Tahoe, the fire department spokesman said. , Dominic Polito.
“We are flooding the region with resources,” he said. “Wherever there are structures, there are firefighters on the ground. “
Ken Breslin was stuck in bumper-to-bumper traffic less than a mile from his home in the city of 22,000, with only a quarter of a tank of gas in his Ford Escape. His son begged him to leave on Sunday night, but he shrugged his shoulders, certain that if an evacuation order came, it would be later in the week.
“Before, it was’ No worries … it’s not going to skyrocket. It’s not going to come down the hill. There are 3,500 firefighters, all these bulldozers and all the air support,” he said. he said, “Until this morning I didn’t think there was a chance he could get into this area. Now it’s very real.”
As the flames moved toward South Lake Tahoe, residents just over the state border in Douglas County, Nevada were subject to evacuation warnings.
Monday’s new evacuation orders, unprecedented in the city, came a day after communities several miles south of the lake were ordered to leave as a fire raged nearby. South Lake Tahoe’s main medical facility, Barton Memorial Hospital, has proactively evacuated dozens of patients, and the El Dorado Sheriff’s Office has transferred inmates to a nearby jail.
“There are fires in California that we’ve never seen before. The essential thing the public needs to know is to evacuate early, ”said Chief Thom Porter, director of the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection, or Cal Fire. “For the rest of you in California: Every acre can burn, and will burn someday in this state.”
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 Regional Forester Jennifer Eberlien.
Overnight, the already massive Caldor fire spread 7 miles towards one area northeast of Highway 50 and over 8 miles into another, officials said. Cal Fire.
More than 15,000 firefighters were battling dozens of fires in California, including teams from Utah, Washington, Wisconsin and West Virginia, said Mark Ghilarducci, director of the California Bureau of Emergency Services. . About 250 active-duty soldiers were trained in Washington State to help with the arduous work of manually clearing forest debris.
Louisiana crews, however, had to return to that state because of Hurricane Ida, “another major catastrophic event unfolding in the country that is drawing resources across the United States,” he said. -he declares.
Porter said that only twice in California history have fires burned from one side of the Sierra Nevada to the other, both this month, along with the Caldor and Dixie Fires. The Dixie, the second largest wildfire in state history at 1,205 square miles about 65 miles north of the Lake Tahoe area blaze, triggered new orders and warnings from Monday. evacuation.
The Lake Tahoe region in the Sierra Nevada Mountains is generally a year-round recreational paradise offering beaches, water sports, hiking, ski resorts, and golf. South Lake Tahoe, at the south end of the lake, is full of outdoor activities and casinos available on the Stateline, Nevada border.
On weekends, the city’s population can easily triple and on holiday weekends, such as the upcoming Labor Day weekend, up to 100,000 people will visit for fun and sunshine. But South Lake Tahoe City Mayor Tamara Wallace said they had been telling people for days to stay away because of the bad air from the wildfires.
She said she thought Caldor’s fire would stay away. The fires of the past did not spread so quickly near the tourist town.
“This is just another example of how wildfires have changed over the years,” she said as she gathered the treasures of her late parents and husband as they prepared. from.
The last two wildfires that ravaged populated areas near Tahoe were the Angora fire which destroyed more than 200 homes in 2007 and the gondola fire in 2002 which ignited near a chairlift. at 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.
Wallace said traffic was crawling on Monday, but hailed the evacuation as orderly because residents heeded authorities’ orders. Authorities have also been more aggressive in recent years, issuing warnings and orders earlier so people have more time to flee.
Not everyone agreed as high winds blew up dust and debris and drivers sat in traffic jams. The California Highway Patrol added “a lot of extra staff” to help guide a chaotic evacuation of South Lake Tahoe as massive traffic jams slowed the evacuation of vehicles, said CHP Deputy Commissioner Ryan Okashima. The congestion had eased Monday afternoon.
John Larson, a resident of South Lake Tahoe, said the evacuation likely went as smoothly as possible, given how quickly the flames moved through the area.
“The fuel went so fast and it climbed the ridge so fast,” Larson said of the fire after moving into an evacuation center in a park in Carson City, Nevada. Red Cross volunteers set up the facility with 50 camp beds after another evacuation center in nearby Gardnerville reached capacity.
The fire destroyed several homes on Sunday along Highway 50, one of the main roads leading to the southern end of the lake. He also roared through the Sierra-at-Tahoe Ski Resort, demolishing some buildings but leaving the main buildings at the base intact. The teams used snow machines to water the ground.
Cottages have burned down near the unincorporated community of Echo Lake, where Tom Fashinell has operated Echo Chalet with his wife since 1984. The summer-only resort offers cottage rentals, but has been ordered to close early for the day. season by the US Forest Service due to ongoing forest fires. .
Fashinell said he was glued to local television news. “We are monitoring to see if the building survives,” he said.
The Caldor Fire has burned nearly 292 square miles since it appeared on August 14. After the fierce weekend fire, containment fell from 19% to 15%. More than 600 structures have been destroyed and at least 20,000 others have been threatened. Gov. Steve Sisolak declared a state of emergency in Nevada on Monday, citing “anticipation” that the wildfire in California’s Lake Tahoe area would cross the state border into the state of Silver.
The National Weather Service warned of dangerous fire conditions and winds until Wednesday.
Diane Kinney, who has lived in the city since the 1970s, said it was the first time her neighborhood had been ordered to evacuate. She and her husband were packing souvenirs, jewelry, and insurance papers shortly after noon. They had to leave their 1964 Chevelle, but she hopes it stays safe.
“Everyone wants to live in Lake Tahoe. There are definitely benefits to being in the mountains, to being with these beautiful pines, ”she said. “But we absolutely have to get out now.”