October 22, 2021

Caldor Fire now 12 miles from Tahoe Basin, more than 34,000 people evacuated – San Francisco Chronicle


SOUTH LAKE TAHOE — From the idle boats bobbing on deserted Lake Tahoe to the thick smoke walling off the view at Inspiration Point, signs of the Caldor Fire’s march toward the lake’s busy southern shore were everywhere on Friday.

Winds picked up late this week, pushing the 2-week-old, 145,000-acre fire within about 12 miles of the Tahoe Basin early Friday and closer to landmarks including the town of Strawberry and the Sierra-at-Tahoe ski resort. About 40 miles away on the western flank of the blaze, firefighters were battling to protect hundreds of houses in Pollock Pines as new evacuations were ordered Friday night near Pleasant Valley.

“We’ve had one heck of a firefight,” Cal Fire spokesperson Dustin Martin said at a Friday evening briefing. “Firefighters on the ground are working over 24 hours into 48 hours due to limited resources, just to make sure that we can continue to keep our foot on the gas.”

With more than 34,000 people already evacuated in the surrounding mountain communities, Lake Tahoe officials reversed course from earlier this week and advised visitors to stay away. Locals gathered where they could, while they could, to process the threat of fire after a strange year and a half of pandemic tourism, an influx of remote workers, and friction about the region’s future.

One such gathering place was the Cold Water Brewery in South Lake Tahoe, where owner Debbie Brown said she’d keep the doors open as long as she could. While longtime residents knocked back IPAs and burgers on Friday afternoon, Brown said her kitchen staff planned to start making daily lunches for officials coordinating the fire response.

“When you’re in a storm on a boat, what is everybody looking for?” Brown said. “They’re looking for a beacon of light.”

That light was getting harder to see on Friday afternoon down Highway 50 at the Sierra-at-Tahoe ski resort. Live cameras broadcast a blanket of gray smoke over a chairlift and the giant pine trees that line 2,000 acres of slopes at the Twin Bridges resort.

Over the past two weeks, Sierra-at-Tahoe General Manager John Rice has watched the fire go from 15 to just 3 miles away from the resort on Friday. Rice, who himself lives in an evacuation warning zone in Christmas Valley, has been busy carrying out a 36-page wildfire prevention plan with the help of a firefighting crew sent by his insurance company with chainsaws, weed whackers and fire retardant gel for the buildings.

“Our snowmaking guns are pointed at the buildings and ready to go, to turn the water on,” Rice said, though he’s holding out hope that it won’t come to that.

Most of the fire that first sparked Aug. 14 near Grizzly Flats is still burning to the west of the resort, on the south side of Highway 50. But winds have also stoked a spot fire on the north side of the highway that fire crews rushed to control as evacuation zones were expanded, said Cal Fire captain and public information officer Keith Wade.

As of Friday evening, more than 18,300 structures were threatened, and air quality readings were at dangerous levels over 500.

“That was today’s focus,” Wade said Friday afternoon, “to contain that incident over there and not let that fire spread.”

At the same time, fire crews farther west braced for approaching flames in Pollock Pines, said Cal Fire spokesperson Capt. Stephen Horner. Crews plowed fire lines with bulldozers, dropped water and retardant, and set small controlled fires to deprive the area of fuels. Dozens of firefighters are stationed in the area “in preparation for the fire to burn up to their containment line,” Horner said.

With the fire active on multiple fronts, Cal Fire Director Thom Porter said this week that protecting the Lake Tahoe area was the “No. 1 priority in the nation.” Hundreds of additional firefighters and aircraft arrived to fight the fire — 3,200 on Friday, Horner said, with more coming — but Cal Fire officials warned that hot temperatures and afternoon winds could hamper the effort.

Evacuations were extended Thursday from Twin Bridges to Echo Summit, with officials issuing the first warnings to prepare to vacate inside the Tahoe Basin. Residents of cabins and houses in rural Christmas Valley between Highway 89 and Echo Summit were advised to prepare to leave the area.

Mark Strasburg lives in Christmas Valley and didn’t waste time moving photos of his kids, important papers, guns and vehicles to a friend’s home in Tahoe Keys outside the evacuation zone. Strasburg and that friend, Erik Anders, were having lunch at the brewery in South Lake Tahoe on Friday as he recounted fire precautions he had taken, like removing 18 trees in recent years.

Both men spoke of how much more the Sierra Nevada seems to have been affected by extreme wildfires — and the smoke that comes with them. But lately, it’s been unusually bad.

“The worst part about it is, I’m actually getting used to it,” Strasburg said. “It’s absolutely the weirdest thing.”

Flames have not yet entered the Tahoe Basin, but smoke from the fire has poured into the area, turning the usually cerulean skies yellowish-gray and filling them with floating ash.

Despite the dismal skies and spreading fire, Horner of Cal Fire was still optimistic that firefighters would keep the fire from spilling out of the mountains and into the basin.

“It’s still a ways away,” he said. “I think we’ll get a handle on it before it reaches the basin.”

Meanwhile, farther north, the massive Dixie Fire grew to 752,920 acres. It’s the second-largest fire in state history. The conflagration, which started July 14 in the Feather River Canyon in Plumas County, possibly from a PG&E equipment failure, has raged through parts of Butte, Tehama, Shasta and Lassen counties, including Lassen National Park.

The fire was 47% contained Friday, but fire officials said light winds, high temperatures and low relative humidity levels forecast over the weekend may keep fueling the fire. The blaze is most active near Taylorsville, and crews have also built containment lines to protect Quincy and Greenhorn, all in Plumas County. More than 4,700 firefighters are battling that fire.

In the Mother Lode, the Airola Fire in Calaveras County, which ignited Wednesday, held at 700 acres and was 50% contained, and the Washington Fire, which started Thursday in Sonora, was 100 acres and 25% contained Friday. The Bennett Fire in Grass Valley was 59 acres and 80% contained.

Back in South Lake Tahoe, brewery owner Brown said the culprit in the fires is clear: climate change, which is causing rising temperatures that dry out vegetation more and make each spark more likely to cause devastation.

A black-and-brown sign outside Cold Water relays the challenge in more universal terms: “Save our planet,” read the big white letters. “It’s the only one with beer.”

J.D. Morris, Lauren Hepler and Michael Cabanatuan are San Francisco Chronicle staff writers. Email: jd.morris@sfchronicle.com, lauren.hepler@sfchronicle.com, mcabanatuan@sfchronicle.com Twitter: @thejdmorris @LAHepler @ctuan

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