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Lake Tahoe faces disastrous ‘urban conflagration’ if Caldor fire reaches communities

As firefighters do everything possible to prevent the Caldor blaze from entering Lake Tahoe, experts have warned of potentially catastrophic losses if the flames spread to neighborhoods along the famed resort town in edge of the lake.

If embers set in the Tahoe Valley, it could cause a disastrous “urban conflagration,” said Crystal Kolden, fire specialist at UC Merced.

She noted that the Alpine village is full of old houses and log cabins with shingled roofs, wooden porches, and piles of pine cones and needles.

“It’s so dry it’s a perfect ignition,” she said. “You have its potential to really start jumping from building to building, and it’s just a completely different beast and they can’t fight it.”

For days the big question has been whether the fire will leap over the great granite ridge that stands between it and the people of South Lake Tahoe. Many residents hoped that the stony topography would serve as a buffer.

Evacuation traffic slows in South Lake Tahoe (Andy Barron / Associated Press)

But Monday’s evacuation order was a worrying indication that crews could lose their footing in the blast-blasted fire. The national meteorological service has issued red flag warnings indicating gusty wind conditions in the area from 11 a.m. to 11 p.m. Tuesday.

Jason Hunter, a fire information officer for Caldor, said on Monday the fire was still standing west of that ridge, but was concerned that strong winds just beginning to pick up could generate point fires and behavior unpredictable.

Over the past few days, the blaze has spotted – or produced wind-blown sparks and started new fires – about half a mile ahead of it, but crews expect that distance to extend to over ‘a mile Monday due to windward, he said.

“Our main concern is this stain,” he said. Specifically, the crews feared that “embers would be blown from the top of the top of the ridge, landing somewhere in the valley and settling in.”

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 a press briefing Monday. She added: “We will continue to assess whether additional resources are required. “

The Caldor fire is one of more than a dozen fires burning in California, according to the California Department of Forestry and Fire Prevention.

Hunter said Monday that crews were conducting tactical fire stops along the Highway 50 corridor on Echo Summit in an attempt to anticipate more leaks.

“The fire exploded yesterday at a rate of significant spread and critical growth,” he said. “The winds have intensified considerably in the high altitudes, [and are] still pushing it in that northeast direction.

This story originally appeared in the Los Angeles Times.