Lake Tahoe Fire Threat Grows as High Winds Fan Flames
(Bloomberg) -- California firefighters battled gusty winds Wednesday to keep a raging wildfire out of the resort town South Lake Tahoe as evacuation orders spread into Nevada.
Crews were mostly able to steer the Caldor Fire away from homes and cabins nestled along the southern shore of the lakeside paradise that thousands had fled just a day before.
“We don’t have any tools out there to stop the fire so we resorted to herding the the fire away from structures and away from people,” said Eric Schwab, a division chief with the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection, during a public briefing on Tuesday evening. The blaze had damaged some structures in the outskirts of South Lake Tahoe, he said.
Officials braced for another difficult day with gusty winds, but said fire fighters should get a respite by Thursday with calmer weather.
The Caldor Fire, which ripped through wildlands left crackling dry by drought, is one of more than a dozen major blazes in California. It is among a series of climate-fueled disasters that have hit the U.S. in the past few months. On Tuesday, more than 1 million homes and businesses in Louisiana were without power, including most of New Orleans, after Hurricane Ida wrecked the state’s electrical grid. Earlier this summer, a brutal heat wave in the Pacific Northwest toppled all-time high temperature records and killed more than 100.
The city of South Lake Tahoe, which has a population of about 22,000 and abuts California’s border with Nevada, is the economic heart of the region, typically attracting throngs of crowds over the summer for its beaches, nearby hiking trails and casinos. It also became a popular destination for remote workers from the San Francisco Bay area during the pandemic, sending real estate prices soaring.
Officials ordered residents to leave the city on Monday as flames swept down a nearby mountain and wind gusts blew sparks onto bone-dry land. Evacuation orders were extended into Nevada on Tuesday.
The region has been choked by smoke, forcing tourists to flee and leaving beaches empty. Governor Gavin Newsom, who faces a recall election in two weeks, said he planned to visit the fire’s front lines Wednesday.
“It’s the number one priority in the state -- we’re putting everything we’ve got on it,” Newsom said, telling any evacuees watching that “we’re doing everything we can to have your back.”
In Northern California, winds will be gusting up to 40 miles (64 kilometers) per hour through Wednesday, said Dawn Johnson, a National Weather Service meteorologist in Reno. Conditions have been listed as critical by the U.S. Storm Prediction Center, with fire warnings throughout the region.
The Caldor blaze has already injured five, torched 192,000 acres, leveled the town of Grizzly Flats and destroyed 669 structures. It’s the second fire in state history to burn from one side of the Sierra Nevada mountain range to the other.
The other, the Dixie Fire, has been burning for more than six weeks in the Sierras north of Sacramento. It has burned more than 807,000 acres across the northern Sierra since it started on July 14, according to Cal Fire.
Residents and those with properties near the crystal-blue Lake Tahoe remained on edge Tuesday.
Dan Ovadya, 50, was keeping close tabs on a 90-year-old family cabin in Christmas Valley, where the fire had spread below Echo Summit that overlooks Lake Tahoe. Ovadya had rushed to the cabin late last week to clear away brush and set up a sprinkler system, hoping it would help guard against burning embers. A photo posted Tuesday by the California Highway Patrol on Twitter showed flames next to his cabin, which remained untouched.
“It’s surreal to watch these incredible places that I’ve grown up and run around be burned,” he said. “It’s like a slow moving atomic explosion.”
At the nearby ski resort of Heavenly, snow cannons were used to spray water on slopes in the path of the fire.
Overnight Monday, Cal Fire stationed crews to keep the blaze out of South Lake Tahoe. In Nevada, officials said the state had developed contingency plans in case the fire crosses the state line. Two of the casinos on Nevada’s side of the Tahoe shore were being used as evacuation centers, Nevada Governor Steve Sisolak said at a press conference Tuesday.
“They’re still operational, but we’re playing that on an hour-by-hour basis,” Sisolak said. The casinos were excluded from the latest evacuation order, Cal Fire said.
“Caldor is a real tough one for us,” Cal Fire Chief Thom Porter said Monday afternoon in a briefing. “We need to be really cognizant that there is fire activity happening in California that we have never seen before.”
California and much of the West will remain hot and dry. The remnants of Hurricane Nora, which struck Mexico over the weekend, will cause heavy rain across Arizona and New Mexico, but that won’t come far enough north to blunt the fire threat.
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