CARSON CITY, Nev. – Fire crews are anxiously awaiting better weather conditions over the next several days that will allow them to get a better handle on the massive blaze burning miles from scenic Lake Tahoe that spurred a mass exit from the region.
The Caldor Fire has continued to spread east but fire crews have been able to corral the blaze just south of Lake Tahoe, known for its picturesque beaches, emerald-blue waters, rocky shorelines and stunning landscapes in the Sierra Nevada. As of Wednesday evening, the blaze had spread through nearly 324 square miles and was only 23% contained, the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection said.
“We’re battling what we can battle and waiting for those winds to subside so that we can get in there and actively engage these fires,” Steven Volmer, a fire behavior analyst at Cal Fire, said Wednesday evening.
The progress on the western side of the fire caused officials to allow some residents from the Pollock Pines and North Camino areas to return to their homes. But the eastern side of the blaze near Lake Tahoe and Nevada was still a concern. Residents in parts of Douglas County, Nevada, were told to leave the area as the fire grew.
The National Weather Service said low humidity and wind gusts up to 45 mph over ridgelines in the Sierra Nevada could help spark flames, but those conditions were expected to subside Thursday and Friday.
The powerful wind gusts were allowing embers from the blaze to travel about a mile, causing new small fires to spark and spreading resources thin. At times, the gusts and conditions were allowing the fire to move at 200 feet a minute as the blaze hopped from treetop to treetop.
Firefighters had battled the blaze amid the poor conditions 3 miles outside South Lake Tahoe, but they were aided by better-than-expected weather overnight. “We lucked out a little bit yesterday,” Cal Fire Operations Section Chief Tim Ernst said.
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 has been feeding on trees, grasses and scattered homes and cabins.
“We’re still not out of the woods. The fire is still moving,” Ernst added.
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.
In Nevada, evacuation centers opened to take in 22,000 South Lake Tahoe residents and scores of others from the surrounding area. As the evacuation zone expanded, shelters in Carson City and Douglas County were near or at capacity Tuesday.
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 nearly 600 homes and more than 180 other structures, and more than 32,000 other buildings are threatened, Cal Fire said.
Ernst said firefighters had opportunities overnight to slow the fire’s growth.
Along the section of the fire threatening to move closer to Nevada, Ernst said, crews created lines to protect homes and other buildings. They also put up protective lines closer to South Lake Tahoe. “This whole community is looking really good right now,” he said.
“The fire burned through there extremely fast, extremely hot. And we did the best that we could,” Cal Fire Division Chief Erich Schwab said of firefighters’ efforts to protect remote cabins in one area of the blaze.
Lake Tahoe is known for glitz. But thousands of Caldor Fire evacuees are blue collar.
According to the National Interagency Fire Center, 83 large fires are burning in 10 states, affecting more than 3,900 square miles. In California, 13 large fires are burning more than 2,200 square miles.
Timothy Pritchard panicked when police knocked on his door. “I had to pack what I could,” the 64-year-old retiree said.
He grabbed important legal documents, credit cards and checkbooks. He left several sentimental items, including mementos of his late girlfriend.
“I just pray to God they’ll be there, but I had to do what I had to do,” he said.
Pritchard, who has lived at South Lake Tahoe for 13 years, was among the first evacuees to arrive in Reno, Nevada, after being turned away from a Carson City shelter that reached maximum capacity.
“I’m just tired and stressed right now,” he said.
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Tuesday, Nevada Gov. Steve Sisolak remained hopeful crews could keep the raging Caldor Fire from crossing the border but said the state is prepared to fight the blaze should it escape the natural bathtub created by Lake Tahoe.
Sisolak said he was pleased with the gains firefighters made in the one day since the National Guard was brought in to help battle the blaze.
“We’re using all of our resources, everything at our disposal,” Sisolak said as ash fell outside Nevada’s Emergency Operations Center in Carson City.
Nevada Division of Forestry officials noted the Caldor Fire is only the second fire to summit the Sierra in history.
The other is the Dixie Fire, which started in late July and is still burning near Lassen Volcanic National Park. The second-largest in state history, the wildfire grew to 1,318 square miles as of Wednesday and was 52% contained, Cal Fire said. It prompted evacuation orders this week.
The Caldor Fire has threatened not only people’s homes and businesses but also the area’s scenic outdoor recreation activities.
Heavenly and Kirkwood – owned by Vail Resorts – were not damaged as of Tuesday afternoon, spokesperson Susan Whitman said in an email, but all employees and guests were forced to leave.
As flames moved toward Heavenly, on the California-Nevada border, officials turned on the mountain’s snowmaking machines.
The fire burned through Sierra-at-Tahoe, a resort on the west side of the Tahoe Basin near Echo Summit, but initial reports indicated the base area, lodge, administration building and gear shop were saved, according to Michael Reitzell, president of Ski California, an organization that represents resorts throughout California and Nevada.
“We know there is going to be some damage,” Reitzell said.
Contributing: James DeHaven and Amy Alonzo, Reno Gazette Journal; The Associated Press