Caldor Fire: Roads packed after South Lake Tahoe ordered to evacuate; all national forests in California closed due to wildfires
- A red flag warning was in effect across the Northern Sierra over the next two days.
- Evacuation warnings were extended to cover the city of South Lake Tahoe and surrounding areas.
- Winds and dry conditions are fueling the fire's spread.
Thousands of people rushed to get out of South Lake Tahoe Monday after the entire tourist resort city came under evacuation orders as a massive wildfire raced toward the iconic freshwater lake, a sparkling gem on the California-Nevada border.
Evacuation warnings issued for the resort city of 22,000 on Sunday turned into mandatory orders Monday, forcing the thousands of residents and tourists visiting the area ahead of Labor Day to pack up and leave. Vehicles loaded with bikes, camping gear and hauling boats snaked through thick, brown air that smelled of campfire while police and other emergency vehicles whizzed by.
Conditions continued to worsen across the northern Sierra. Low humidity and gusty winds were expected to challenge firefighters urgently working to keep the blaze away from the popular vacation spot featuring picturesque beaches, emerald-blue waters, rocky shorelines and stunning landscapes in the Sierra Nevada.
“There is fire activity happening in California that we have never seen before. The critical thing for the public to know is evacuate early,” said Chief Thom Porter, director of the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection, or Cal Fire. “For the rest of you in California: Every acre can and will burn someday in this state.”
The blaze was one of 85 large fires and complexes across the country and one of 13 in California alone, according to the National Interagency Fire Center. The fires currently burning have scorched more than 3,900 square miles, or 2.5 million acres, across the country.
The ongoing blazes caused Department of Agriculture forest officials to close all of California's national forests to visitors for at least two weeks in hopes of both helping fire crews get a handle on spiraling crises and avoid tourists from getting trapped or causing new fires.
“We do not take this decision lightly but this is the best choice for public safety,” said Regional Forester Jennifer Eberlien. “It is especially hard with the approaching Labor Day weekend when so many people enjoy our national forests.”
The forests will be closed from Tuesday to at least Sept. 17.
The evacuation order due to the Caldor Fire covers almost the entire city of South Lake Tahoe and the surrounding area. The fire containment line was about 10 miles south from the lake.
As the fire burned around Highway 50 to the west, residents were told to head east toward Nevada. Photos showed roads jammed with residents and tourists, who frequent the scenic freshwater lake in the summertime, anxious to flee the area. Officials urged those leaving to remain calm.
More on Caldor Fire:Sisolak declares emergency, Highway 50 packed as thousands flee South Lake Tahoe
“This is a systematic evacuation, one neighborhood at a time," South Lake Tahoe police Lt. Travis Cabral said on social media. “I am asking you as our community to please remain calm.”
The fire destroyed multiple homes Sunday along Highway 50, one of the main routes to the south end of the lake. The fire also roared through the Sierra-at-Tahoe ski resort, destroying some buildings but leaving the main buildings at the base intact.
By Monday night the fire had crossed state highways 50 and 89 and burned mountain cabins as it churned down slopes toward the Tahoe Basin. Flames came within just a few miles of South Lake Tahoe and residents of communities just over the state line in Douglas County, Nevada were warned to get ready to evacuate.
Ken Breslin was stuck in bumper-to-bumper traffic less than a mile from his home, with only a quarter-tank of gas in his Ford Escape. His son begged him to leave Sunday night, but he shrugged him off, certain that if an evacuation order came, it would be later in the week.
“Before, it was, ‘No worries ... it’s not going to crest. It’s not gonna come down the hill. There’s 3,500 firefighters, all those bulldozers and all the air support,’” he said. “Until this morning, I didn’t think there was a chance it could come into this area. Now, it’s very real.”
Neighborhoods throughout the community of 20,000 people have turned into ghost towns. The tourist destination usually welcomes throngs of visitors leading up to the Labor Day holiday. Instead, souvenir shops and restaurants were closed as the Caldor Fire continued to rage closer each day.
"Being closer to the state line, it’s all just pure tourism with everyone coming up here for casinos," said Breeana Cody, an employee at McP’s Taphouse Grill. "But everything is pretty vacant right now.”
Cody said it's been smoky for days on end. Ash has blanketed the area, too.
“September until the end of the year is pretty good but Labor Day weekend is really our big hurrah," Cody said.
With fewer customers, deciding who should work and when with less revenue coming in has also been a delicate balance for businesses in the area.
Officials at Barton Memorial Hospital said earlier Monday that all patients were being evacuated and transferred to partner facilities. The hospital can treat up to 63 patients and has a 48-bed skilled nursing facility.
The fire remained active overnight, especially in the northeast sections of the blaze, and ember casts traveled up to half a mile, according to the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection.
Jeff Marsolais, supervisor for El Dorado National Forest, said fire crews had hoped to prevent the flames from spreading east, but Sunday, "it let loose."
"Today’s been a rough day, and there’s no bones about it," he said.
The Caldor Fire started Aug. 14 and has burned more than 186,000 acres. It is only 15% contained, according to Cal Fire. Nearly 500 homes have been destroyed and at least five people injured, Cal Fire said.
Fire crews have battled in rugged terrain, in some cases carrying hoses from Highway 50 to put out spot fires prompted by the winds. Several homes were destroyed along the highway, as well as minor structures at the Sierra-at-Tahoe ski resort.
More on the Caldor Fire:South Lake Tahoe under evacuation warning as crews struggle to slow blaze
Winds and dry conditions fueled the fire's spread Sunday. “To put it in perspective, we’ve been seeing about a half-mile of movement on the fire’s perimeter each day for the last couple of weeks, and today, this has already moved at 2.5 miles on us, with no sign that it’s starting to slow down," Cal Fire Division Chief Eric Schwab said.
According to the National Interagency Fire Center, 85 large fires and complexes currently burning have scorched more than 3,900 square miles. California alone has 13 large fires burning.
The ongoing blazes caused forest officials to close all of the state's national forests to visitors for at least two weeks in hopes of helping fire crews get a handle on spiraling crises.
“We do not take this decision lightly but this is the best choice for public safety,” said Regional Forester Jennifer Eberlien. “It is especially hard with the approaching Labor Day weekend, when so many people enjoy our national forests.”
East of the Caldor Fire is the Tamarack Fire, which firefighters have largely contained at 82%. The Dixie Fire, farther north and 48% contained, is the second-largest in state history at 1,196 square miles. The Dixie Fire has destroyed 1,277 homes and other buildings, according to Cal Fire.
Climate change has led to particularly active fire seasons across the West in recent years. Warming temperatures have made it easier for fires to burn larger and more frequently.
Contributing: Jorge Ortiz, USA TODAY; Kristin Oh, Reno Gazette-Journal; The Associated Press