Residents scramble to evacuate as wildfire approaches Lake Tahoe

With the Caldor Fire approaching, Dawn Svymbersky stands in the middle of Highway 50 as evacuee traffic stands still in South Lake Tahoe, California [Noah Berger/AP Photo]
With the Caldor Fire approaching, Dawn Svymbersky stands in the middle of Highway 50 as evacuee traffic stands still in South Lake Tahoe, California

A huge firefighting force gathered Tuesday to defend Lake Tahoe from a raging wildfire that forced the evacuation of California communities on the south end of the alpine resort and put others across the state line in Nevada on notice to be ready to flee.

The streets of the popular vacation haven, normally filled with thousands of summer tourists, were all but deserted after the rapid growth of the Caldor fire forced a mass evacuation on Monday and triggered hours of gridlocked traffic.

“It’s more out of control than I thought,” evacuee Glen Naasz said of the fire that by late Monday had been pushed by strong winds across two major highways, burning mountain cabins as it swept down slopes into the Tahoe Basin. More firefighters arrived just after dark Monday and many were dispatched to protect homes in the Christmas Valley area, about 16km (10 miles) from the city of South Lake Tahoe.

Thick smoke prevented aerial firefighting operations periodically last week. But since then, 23 helicopters and three air tankers dumped thousands of gallons of water and retardant on the fire, fire spokesman Dominic Polito said. The National Weather Service warned of critical fire weather conditions through Wednesday due to strong gusts, very low humidity and extremely dry fuels.

Ken Breslin was stuck in bumper-to-bumper traffic about 1.6km (one mile) from his home in the city of 22,000, with only a quarter-tank of gas in his Ford Escape. His son begged him to leave Sunday night, but he shrugged him off, certain that if an evacuation order came, it would be later in the week.

“Before, it was, ‘No worries … it’s not going to crest. It’s not going to come down the hill. There’s 3,500 firefighters, all those bulldozers and all the air support,’” he said. “Until this morning, I didn’t think there was a chance it could come into this area. Now, it’s very real.” As flames advanced towards South Lake Tahoe, residents just over the state line in Nevada faced evacuation warnings.

Monday’s evacuation orders came a day after nearby communities were abruptly ordered to leave as the fire raged. South Lake Tahoe’s main medical facility, Barton Memorial Hospital, evacuated dozens of patients. The El Dorado County Sheriff’s Office transferred inmates to a neighbouring jail.

“There is fire activity happening in California that we have never seen before. The critical thing for the public to know is 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 and will burn someday in this state.”

The threat of fire is so widespread that the US Forest Service announced Monday that all national forests in California would be closed until September 17. More than 6,800 wildfires have blackened an estimated 689,000 hectares (1.7 million acres) within California alone this season – much of it on Forest Service property – putting 2021 on pace to surpass last year’s record amount of landscape consumed by flames.

The Caldor blaze has emerged as one of the most destructive and disruptive this season, spreading across more than 71,740 hectares (177,000 acres) since August 14, with firefighters managing to carve containment lines approximately just 14 percent of its perimeter as of Monday. The fire has destroyed at least 472 homes and other structures and led to injuries of five people, a mix of firefighters and civilians, according to the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection.

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