A wildfire that had raged in remote areas of the Sierra Nevada for two weeks reached a ridge Monday and began descending into key population centers along Lake Tahoe.
As the fire in Caldor intensified in dry and windy conditions, thousands of people along the southern and western shores of the lake were ordered to evacuate. Firefighters rushed to put out the blaze just miles from South Lake Tahoe, California.
Tourists normally swarm the lake on the California-Nevada border in the summer months for boating, fishing, hiking, eating and drinking. But by sunset on Monday, the community seemed to have come to a standstill.
On streets that had been clogged just hours before, shops and businesses — motels, restaurants, supermarkets — were deserted. The roads were empty except for fire trucks and television reporters documenting the eerie calm.
It was impossible to know when, if at all, the fire would reach the city. But people didn’t stay to test the fury of a fire that could threaten more than 20,000 structures, according to the fire service.
Public safety officials warned that the fire in Caldor, the latest to grip California during a particularly brutal summer for firefighters in the West, showed no signs of abating. It had scorched more than 177,000 acres and was contained 14 percent on Monday.
The mandatory evacuation zone stretched from Tahoma, California, on the western shore of the lake, to the Nevada border. “It was some exciting moments, I think, for our citizens in South Lake Tahoe today,” David Stevenson, the city’s police chief, said at a news conference Monday night.
As of Tuesday, nearly all of California’s national forests will be closed through September 17 for public safety reasons. The National Weather Service has a red flag warning for the northern Sierra Nevada and southern Cascades, meaning extremely dry conditions and wind gusts up to 35 miles per hour would likely set off wildfires in the mountains.
The warning will remain in effect until 11 p.m. Wednesday for the area, which was shrouded in mystery on Monday. Smoke from the fire had deteriorated air quality to unhealthy levels, the US Forest Service said:.
Firefighters fought fires Monday along a ten-mile stretch of an old Pony Express route connecting Gold Rush towns along the heavily forested western slope of the Sierra Nevada. At some points, the crews drew water from the American River to put out fires and protect the cabins along Highway 50.
Even at 5,000 feet, temperatures were in the mid-90s in the mid-90s, unusually hot for the Sierra. Patches of fire burned on both sides of the road.
In the heart of the fire, the sky was orange and the valleys a dense slate of impenetrable smoke.
Along the granite cliffs that descend into the Lake Tahoe Basin, firefighters chased away a spot fire that had ignited on the slopes toward South Lake Tahoe. Firefighters and city officials had hoped the granite wall would serve as a protective shield for the communities along Lake Tahoe. But winds carried embers that jumped from the cliffs.
Many evacuees struggled with bumper-to-bumper traffic after several major roads in the area were closed. Photos showed stationary cars on Highway 50, the main artery along the lake’s southeast shore.
Chief Stevenson said he was stuck on Highway 50 for about three and a half hours on Monday.
“I am so grateful that our citizens listened to the warning and order and evacuated the city,” he said.
Known for its sapphire waters and evergreen coves, the lake is especially popular with Bay Area vacationers. It is home to several famous ski resorts and casinos, which are located just across the border from South Lake Tahoe in Stateline, Nev. Several concerts scheduled for this week at the Harveys Lake Tahoe casino were postponed due to the fire threat.
While wildfires occur across the West every year, scientists see the impact of climate change in the extreme heatwaves that contributed to the intensity of the fires this summer. Prolonged periods of abnormally high temperatures signal a changing climate, they say.
While the Caldor Fire threatened Lake Tahoe, the Dixie Fire, the largest single-origin wildfire in California history, continued to rage in the northern part of the state. That blaze had burned more than 771,000 acres in five counties Monday and was about 48 percent under control, according to Cal Fire.