SAM METZ, JANIE HAR and JOHN ANTCZAK, Associated Press/Report for America
Favorable weather helped firefighters trying to save communities on the south end of Lake Tahoe from an approaching wildfire, but officials warned Wednesday that stiff winds and dry conditions mean that homes in the California-Nevada alpine region are still in danger.
“We lucked out a little bit yesterday with some of the winds that didn’t come up quite as hard as we expected them to,” Tim Ernst, an operations section chief for the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection, told firefighters in a briefing. “We were fortunate the fire did not make as strong a push into Tahoe as it did the previous day.”
The Caldor Fire remained roughly three miles south of the recently evacuated city of South Lake Tahoe, moving northeast toward the California-Nevada state line, said Henry Herrera, a battalion chief for the agency, which is also known as Cal Fire.
Crews tried desperately to keep flames away from urban communities, where houses are close together and shopping centers, hotels and other structures would provide even more fuel for a fire that so far has been feeding on trees, grasses and scattered homes and cabins.
“We’re still not out of the woods. The fire is still moving,” he said.
The fire has been burning toward Lake Tahoe from the southwest along California Highway 50, climbing over a Sierra Nevada summit and descending into the Tahoe Basin.
Thick smoke has enveloped the city of South Lake Tahoe, which is all but deserted at a time when it would normally be swarming with tourists. On Monday, roughly 22,000 residents and thousands of others from neighboring communities jammed the city’s main artery for hours after they were ordered to leave.
South Lake Tahoe city officials said only a handful of residents defied the evacuation order.
Meanwhile, officials prepared for the next possible phase of the firefight. The South Tahoe Public Utility District asked people to turn off hoses, irrigation systems and sprinklers to ensure that wells can pump at full capacity. That means “the minute a firefighter hooks into a hydrant that they are getting full pressure, and as much water as possible is coming out,” said Shelly Thomsen, spokeswoman for the utility.
As flames moved toward the Heavenly ski resort, officials turned on the mountain’s snow-making machines to increase humidity and slow down any flames.
To his wife’s dismay, John Rhodes, 60, stuck around to defend the couple’s neighborhood in an unincorporated area south of South Lake Tahoe that burned in the 2007 Angora Fire.
Rhodes and his neighbors, including several off-duty firefighters from other California agencies, wrapped homes in hoses and ran sprinklers to create a perimeter around the neighborhood to supplement official firefighting work nearby.
As a rookie firefighter, he admitted to having butterflies.
“I was anxious about how I would stand up near the hot spot. These guys are trying to get me all coached,” Rhodes said, pointing toward his firefighter friends, who declined to talk to a reporter.
The Caldor Fire not only emptied out South Lake Tahoe, but parts of neighboring Stateline, Nevada.
Nevada casino regulators said gambling was suspended at the Hard Rock Lake Tahoe, Montbleu Resort, Harrah’s and Harvey’s Lake Tahoe, where officials said their casinos were closed to the public but their hotels were housing firefighters and displaced employees.
The fire has destroyed at least 700 homes and other structures and scorched nearly 320 square miles (827 square kilometers) since breaking out Aug. 14. It still threatens at least 33,000 more homes and structures. It was 20% contained on Wednesday.
More than 15,000 firefighters, with help from out-of-state crews, were battling dozens of California blazes, including another monstrous blaze in the same area.
Maj. Gen. David Baldwin, adjutant general of California, said the state has also deployed more than 1,000 National Guard soldiers, airmen and sailors and 10 other states have sent around 1,250 additional Guard members. Many of those are providing air support, including 23 aircraft, some equipped with water buckets, others with systems that can drop fire retardant.
Baldwin described the working conditions as “very tough,” especially for the hand crews who cut through dense brush using shovels and picks. “They are operating in very hazardous areas.”
A firefighter injured while battling the Caldor Fire last weekend was expected to be hospitalized for a month after undergoing skin grafting surgery. Richard Gerety III of Patterson, California, suffered third-degree burns over 20% of his body, the Modesto Bee reported.
About 65 miles (105 kilometers) north of the Lake Tahoe-area blaze, the Dixie Fire is the second-largest wildfire in state history at 1,320 square miles (3,415 square kilometers). The weeks-old fire prompted new evacuation orders and warnings this week.
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, destructive and unpredictable, scientists say.
Tom O’Connell and his wife, Linda, awaited the fate of their home in nearby Meyers while anchored on their sailboat in Ventura Harbor. The two-bedroom they’ve owned for 40 years survived the Angora Fire that destroyed about 250 houses in 2007. They didn’t know if they’d be lucky again.
“You worry about the things you can have some control over,” O’Connell said. “We’ve no control over this.”
Laura Forvilly had planned to stay as long as possible in her Stateline condominium, but her adult children persuaded her to pack up Tuesday and leave in advance of an evacuation order. She arrived at her sister’s house in nearby Reno, where the air was clear and skies blue.
She’s not worried about her home or business running cruises on the lake. But she’s surprised by how close the fire is.
“I’m so sad our beautiful Tahoe is going through this,” Forvilly said. “It’s hard to believe it’s actually happening this close to where we all live and work.”