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Crews scramble as Caldor fire approaches Lake Tahoe

It was a moment authorities hoped would never happen: the massive evacuation of South Lake Tahoe in the face of a rapidly approaching wildfire.

Even as the Caldor fire moved ever closer to the famous resort town for days on end, few residents believed it would actually happen. Most spoke reverently of a towering granite ridge a few miles away that they believed would prevent flames from falling into the Lake Tahoe Basin.

On Monday morning, however, the wind-whipped blaze had made alarming progress, raising the specter of an uncontrolled city fire and scaring residents away under mandatory evacuation orders.

“Today has been a tough day, and there are no bones about it,” said Eldorado National Forest supervisor Jeff Marsolais.

The evacuation comes amid a summer of extreme fire behavior, as heat, drought and wind fuel the flames and strain the state’s firefighting capabilities. In response to the crisis, the US Forest Service announced Monday that it would shut down all of California’s national forests for about two weeks, starting at 11:59 p.m. Tuesday. The Pentagon has agreed to send hundreds of US military personnel to help fight the blazes in northern California.

The Tahoe evacuation order covers almost the entire Lake Tahoe basin in El Dorado County, from the California-Nevada border at the southern end of the lake to Tahoma on its western shore.

For nearly a week, the area had been suffocated by burning eye smoke and a layer of ash thick enough to leave footprints. Vacationers who typically populate Tahoe every summer had long given up on their recreation plans, as swarms of midges and flies descended from the fire’s edge, suggesting even the bugs were leaving town.

Whether the Caldor fire reaches South Lake Tahoe remains to be seen, and firefighters are working fast and hard to avoid the worst-case scenario.

But the strong winds moving through the region – along with the state’s extreme dryness – are a recipe for disaster. Not only would an urban conflagration in the South Lake Tahoe area threaten lives and homes, it would also move faster, burn more and be much harder to fight, experts say.

“They long regarded this granite wall as what was going to prevent the fire,” said Crystal Kolden, fire specialist at UC Merced. “But it’s a new world with climate change, and it’s basically no longer a viable last line of defense.”

A firefighter battles the Caldor fire on Saturday in Strawberry, Calif.

(Jason Armond / Los Angeles Times)

So far, the Caldor fire has mainly fed on vegetation, Kolden said; but if the fire reaches neighboring communities, that will change quickly. Houses and other structures would not only provide additional fuel for the blaze, but would also release dangerous chemicals into the air, as well as “huge embers.”

“It’s an alpine community with log cabins, and a lot of these structures were built in the 1940s, 50s and 60s,” she said. “So you have that potential to really start jumping from building to building, and it’s just a whole different beast and they can’t fight it.”

Forest fires can typically burn up to around 1,500 degrees, Kolden said, while structure fires can burn closer to 3,600 degrees.

“It’s so dangerous, it’s so toxic and there’s so much heat,” she said.

Basin residents followed the blaze for days, and many crouched down with air purifiers to dull the yellow-gray smoke. Some said they feared a massive evacuation could lead to chaos, as much of Highway 50 is closed and there aren’t many roads outside of Tahoe.

Already on Monday, it was reported that the highway looked more like a parking lot as residents fled east into Nevada and were caught in a traffic jam lasting several hours.

“For us that was a good sign,” said South Lake Fire Chief Clive Savacool. “It meant that our citizens were listening to evacuation orders.”

Carol Bin, 61, said she moved her horses to Gardnerville, Nevada last week. A former resident of Big Bear, she has faced evacuations before and she was not eager to do it again.

“The hardest part is packing,” Bin said from his driveway in Christmas Valley. “Do I pack my bags for a week?” Or do I pack my bags like I’ll never come back? “

The granite ridge that overlooks the Tahoe Basin could have mitigating effects on the blaze, officials said. Unlike the lower elevations populated by scorching manzanita scrub, ponderosa pines, and cedars, the ridge is characterized by firs and more open, open areas that can help slow the spread of fire.

But it was not so much the fuel as the wind that worried officials on Monday.

Caldor’s fire spokesman Jason Hunter said the blaze spotted – or generated windblown sparks, which can create new fires – at distances of half a mile in recent years. days. However, the strengthening winds in the area could easily extend that to over a mile. Red flag warnings in the fire zone indicated there could be gusts as strong as 35 mph until Tuesday evening.

“Our main concern is this stain,” Hunter said. Specifically, the crews feared that “embers blown from the top of the top of the ridge would land somewhere in the valley and take root.”

Crews scramble as Caldor fire approaches Lake Tahoe

Jason Hunter, spokesperson for the Caldor fire, provides an update on Friday in Strawberry, Calif.

(Jason Armond / Los Angeles Times)

Hunter said on Monday that crews were busy carrying out tactical firewalls along the Highway 50 corridor on Echo Summit in an effort to anticipate more leaks.

But Kolden noted that many homes in the Tahoe area have rocking roofs, wooden porches, and a buildup of pine cones and needles.

“It’s so dry it’s a perfect ignition,” Kolden said, adding that if the embers are drifting into the basin, “then it’s just a function of the wind and the fuels carrying the fire into South Lake. “.

Concern about the potential for disaster rises far beyond Tahoe’s typically emerald coastline. The progress of the blaze alarmed President Biden’s administration, which was otherwise concerned about Hurricane Ida on the Gulf Coast.

“We are monitoring forest fires,” White House press secretary Jen Psaki said at Monday’s press conference. She added: “We will continue to assess whether additional resources are required. “

Already, more than 15,000 people are working on the fires in California, including nearly 1,200 fire trucks, 315 manual crews, 367 bulldozer units, 411 water refuellers and 111 helicopters, officials said during an update. emergency operations update Monday.

Assistance includes 1,059 California National Guard soldiers, sailors and airmen who support firefighting operations ranging from space platforms to boots on the ground, said Maj. Gen. Dave Baldwin. Most recently, 150 military police were dispatched to help El Dorado County and the California Highway Patrol conduct traffic checkpoints and secure evacuated areas, he said.

In addition, the National Interagency Fire Center has requested that approximately 200 active-duty U.S. Army soldiers be deployed to serve as fire teams. They were to be trained over the next week and sent to fire lines in northern California in early September, the fire station said in a press release.

However, the two fires that authorities have deemed critical – the Caldor and Dixie fires – continue to display unprecedented behavior.

Chief Thom Porter of the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection said that before this year no fires had burned from one side of the Sierra to the other. The Caldor and Dixie Fires have now achieved this feat.

“Twice in our history and they’re both happening this month,” Porter said. “So we have to be really aware that there are fires in California that we’ve never seen before.”

Crews scramble as Caldor fire approaches Lake Tahoe

Firefighters cross Highway 50 on Saturday in Strawberry, Calif.

(Jason Armond / Los Angeles Times)

More than 43,400 Californians have been ordered to evacuate their homes amid worsening conflagrations in the state, said Mark Ghilarducci, director of the California governor’s office of emergency services.

“We know these are difficult times, and we continue to be all on deck,” he said.

The wooded area where the Caldor fire burns has already been assaulted by fire. By the mid-1800s, the rise of steam logging equipment, sawmills, and railroads increased the risk of fires. Newspaper articles in the 1880s spoke of entire towns destroyed.

Tahoe City, which then had about 50 houses, two hotels and a few stores, burned down in 1894, according to Los Angeles Times records. Another fire in 1898 burned from the Rubicon region in the mountains to the shore of the lake, destroying “a great deal of precious wood,” according to records.

And many South Lake Tahoe residents said they still remember the 2007 Angora Fire – another wind-blown wildfire in El Dorado County that sparked evacuations and destroyed more of 200 houses. Officials blamed the high winds and low humidity for the speed with which it swept through the region.

But this fire never exceeded 3,000 acres. The Caldor fire, by comparison, had devastated more than 177,000 acres as of Monday morning, and it was only 14% under control.

Michael Hicks, owner of the historic Strawberry Lodge on Highway 50, was among many residents in the area who anxiously watched the fire trail from afar.

“I hope they can save as much community as possible,” Hicks said. But, he added, it is “to the winds and to the firefighters”.

Times editors Chris Megerian and Anita Chabria contributed to this report.