SOUTH LAKE TAHOE — Sometimes you can’t help but reach for a cliché: South Lake Tahoe was the calm before the storm on Monday night. After a frenzied forced evacuation that forced thousands to flee, the city fell eerily silent.
Everything was closed. Supermarket parking lots were empty; restaurants and motels were deserted. A man evacuating on a bicycle, clothes piled high behind his seat, cycled past. The roads felt wider with no traffic.
On the last days of August, Lake Tahoe would normally be packed with tourists paddleboarding, fishing, lounging, drinking, and hiking.
“You’ll never see South Lake Tahoe like this again,” one resident told me before closing the door of his car and driving down an empty road into Nevada.
The mandatory evacuation zone created by the fast-moving Caldor fire stretched from Tahoma, California, on the western shore of the lake, to the Nevada border from Monday night.
And yet a 10-minute drive away, there was urgency in the air as hundreds of firefighters battled to save Lake Tahoe. The Caldor fire, which ignited two weeks ago, reached a ridge on Monday and, propelled by strong winds, began to descend into the well-populated Tahoe Basin.
The fire was under 15 percent control Monday, though that number seemed to have barely mattered as the fire spread across South Lake Tahoe.
Less than six miles from the lake shore, the inmates’ firefighters ran down the mountain slopes to put out fires on the spot. The switchbacks leading to Echo Summit, the 7,482-foot pass that leads to the Gold Rush towns along the American River, were covered with the yellow-coated men and women of Cal Fire. They peered up at the mountain and the fire descending from it.
Driving between these two places on Monday night, between the quiet town and the fiery hill, I struggled to process the contrast.
It was almost as if South Lake Tahoe was taking a deep breath Monday night and getting ready for a fight with the fire that seemed determined to knock at the gates.
Until Monday, the Caldor fire had burned up and down remote Sierra hills, past small Gold Rush hamlets. More than 480 homes have been destroyed in the fire’s path, many of them vacation cabins.
But what comes next for the Caldor fire is a terrifying prospect of an entirely different magnitude. Now that the fire is in the Tahoe Basin, Cal Fire estimates 33,679 homes are at risk.
After a strangely beautiful sunset on Monday, a family of ducks floated along an empty white sand beach in South Lake Tahoe. They seemed oblivious as the air grew heavy with smoke—and a city awaited its fate.
Thomas Fuller is the San Francisco bureau chief for NewsMadura.
Where we are traveling
Today’s travel tip comes from Elizabeth Schenk, who recommends Sonoma County’s Sea Ranch, “one of her favorite places on Earth.”
The Times wrote a few years ago about Sea Ranch, California’s modernist utopia.
Your recall questions answered
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You can, but if it’s Gavin Newsom, it doesn’t count. California law prohibits the incumbent from being listed as a replacement candidate in a recall.
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Read answers to more of your frequently asked questions about the California recall.
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And before you go, good news
A World War II veteran who celebrated his 96th birthday in Torrance on Saturday was surprised by a visit from all five of his children.
“It’s just so amazing,” the non-year-old, David Botelho, told The Los Angeles Daily News. “It’s so rare that I see them all together.”