San Francisco Chronicle
Sep. 1—SOUTH LAKE TAHOE — Firefighters battled the monstrous Caldor Fire on Tuesday, protecting alpine communities and shielding some of the country’s most beloved outdoor playgrounds in the Tahoe Basin.
Gusting winds roared through the region carrying embers that breached defense lines and threatened swaths of South Lake Tahoe, which completed an unprecedented citywide evacuation of its 22,000 residents Monday.
Fire officials said their strategy was to keep the fire on the north side of Highway 88, where new orders to evacuate were issued Tuesday evening.
That was good news for the Kirkwood ski resort, which sits south of Highway 88. An offshoot of the 199,632-acre fire approached the resort early in the day, but private firefighters stationed there were prepared to shore up the lodge and other buildings as they did to save the Sierra-at-Tahoe resort on Monday.
The Heavenly Mountain Resort is well north of 88, in a danger zone near the southeastern tip of Lake Tahoe. Maps show the flames as close as four miles from parts of the resort.
“The head of the fire has not made it into Heavenly yet,” Eric Schwab, Cal Fire’s operations section chief said shortly after 5 p.m. “We don’t have any tools out there to stop the fire, so we’re herding it away from structures.”
What’s keeping the fire going at this point are the winds and the hot, dry air that together are blowing embers into “very old, very dense” trees that haven’t burned since before 1940, said Steve Volmer, Cal Fire’s fire behavior manager, at Tuesday’s evening briefing.
The winds were expected to ease only slightly Wednesday and lighten considerably by Thursday, said Jim Dudley, a Cal Fire meteorologist.
“There’s light at the end of the tunnel,” he said. “That will make for a much better situation in the fire footprint.”
Firefighters have already contained the western portion of the fire zone, including the communities of Pollack Pines and Grizzly Flats, officials said. And residents are clamoring to return home, although that can’t happen until fire officials declare the area safe.
Late Tuesday, firefighters strenghtened defenses against flames burning in the forest near the Pioneer Trail, a main thoroughfare off Highway 50 on the eastern edge of the city.
Tod Flowers watched a line of engines head down a side street to the fire front. This was personal — he lives in the neighborhood.
Flowers spends the fire off-season working to prevent what he was now seeing in his own neighborhood, overseeing prescribed burns and fuel reduction projects for the U.S. Forest Service. He hopes that effort has saved some homes. But he also knows the wind, drought and a century of fire suppression in the forest has set the stage for a fierce battle.
“All our work is being tested by this fire,” he said.
In Meyers, a 15-minute drive south of Lake Tahoe down Highway 50, fire crews from several counties, including Alameda, braced for fierce winds. Just before sunset, the yellow-clad crews used their hoses to keep embers at bay. So far, the community’s small downtown was safe.
“There’s no magic,” said Kent Carlin, a battalion chief with the Alameda County Fire Department, modest about the achievement, which has taken days of sweat and aching backs to remove flammable objects, keep roofs wet and build the lines of defense that will, ultimately, conquer the fire.
Carlin just arrived in the Tahoe Basin after leaving the Monument Fire in Trinity County around 3 a.m. Tuesday morning.
Many of the roughly two dozen firefighters from Alameda County had been on similarly grueling schedules, he said.
“We’ve got people that have just gone from fire to fire,” Carlin said. “Some of them haven’t been home in weeks.”
A few firefighters ventured down a hill toward South Lake Tahoe as dinner time rolled around.
In a deserted town whose survival depends on their long hours, they hoped there might still be pizza to be found.
South Lake Tahoe Fire Chief Clive Savacool said that Tuesday could have been the most important day of the fire fight so far because crews were able to do the critical work of building fire breaks in the forest to keep it from encroaching on neighborhoods from Meyers to South Lake Tahoe.
“Every mile they go is that much more of my community that is protected,” he said.
Mandatory evacuations we put into effect in and around Highway 50 on the Nevada side of the border Tuesday afternoon covering a 2-mile stretch between Lake Parkway and Elks Point Road, as well as Nevada’s State Route 207 heading east from Highway 50. Stateline casinos were not part of the order.
After the hurried evacuation of South Lake Tahoe on Monday, the city was quiet Tuesday save for the movement of fire trucks and equipment to shore up fire breaks and prepare for spot fires.
Thousands of residents had scattered in different directions, filling shelters, hotels, the homes of family and friends and even the WalMart parking lot in Gardnerville, Nev., about 7 miles over the California state line.
Leia Sutton set up camp there with her parents, who fled Meyers on Sunday as chunks of charcoal-like ash rained down on them.
Sutton, 42, stayed up all night, packing in a daze, and then spent two hours Monday on the 25-mile drive from South Lake Tahoe to the Nevada town.
“It’s just the unknown,” Sutton said, as she watched other evacuees arrive. “What will I have to go back to?”
There was no estimate on when residents can return.
We have a lot of history up there,” said Sutton’s father, Lee Sutton, 70, a former regional NASCAR driver. “We’ll have to leave it to Mother Nature.”
Thousands of firefighters were working the blaze, bulldozing containment lines in the area north of Highway 50 and working in the Tahoe Basin to keep the fire from homes along Highway 89.
“That’s an extremely challenging fire environment for firefighters to deal with,” he said.
The Caldor has injured five people, including three firefighters. One of them, Richard Gerety, a tractor mechanic who volunteers with the West Stanislaus Fire Protection District, will spend at least a month in the hospital with second- and third-degree burns across 20% of his body.
“He’s one of those guys that was raised right, willing to help people,” said Fire Chief Jeff Gregory. “He always goes all out, likes to listen and learn — and he knows what he’s doing.”
Gerety was out with a team fighting the northeast corner of the fire on Saturday afternoon when — Gregory wasn’t certain how it happened — he was burned. Four firefighters working with him were able to rescue him and transport him to the burn center. Colleagues have created a GoFundMe account to help Gerety’s wife and 2-year-old son while he is recovering.
The Caldor Fire started Aug. 14 south of Grizzly Flats and has pushed relentlessly up Highway 50, traveling more than 8 miles on some days, fueled by dry timber and winds across a landscape that has mostly avoided wildfires for the past several decades. It was 16% contained Tuesday evening.
The blaze that has torched nearly 200,000 acres and destroyed hundreds of cabins and homes continues to threaten more than 33,000 additional structures as it expands south and pushes to the northeast.
It was one of the largest of nearly 7,000 fires that have burned across the state this year, with more than 1.8 million acres scorched. The Caldor is now on the Top 20 list of the largest fires in state history, currently at No. 17.
It is one of only two California wildfires ever to have made it over a Sierra summit and burn down the other side. The Dixie Fire, which reached nearly 820,000 acres Tuesday, did it weeks earlier. Dixie, burning across five counties to the north of the Caldor — Butte, Plumas, Tehama, Shasta and Lassen — was 48% contained as of Tuesday night.
Fire officials have described this year’s fire season as unprecedented, the blazes faster, more complex and more dangerous than anything they’ve seen before.
The Caldor Fire has defied efforts to stop it, with firefighters pushed back to defend structures or get people out of the way.
The landscape up Highway 50 will bear witness for years to come, the trees and hillsides blackened, clusters of cabins destroyed. Firefighters remained along the route Tuesday, battling back flames that continued to threaten homes near Twin Bridges, only to evacuate, their faces blackened by ash, when the fire turned on them.
Trees and piles of debris continued to smolder, along the route, two days after the main fire burned through.
A few miles west of Echo Summit, a smoldering mess remained in Phillips after flames climbed into the tree canopy, torching towering pines and destroying a cluster of cabins owned by families for generations.
The tiny unincorporated community is barely visible on a map, a blip as tourists drive by on the way to Lake Tahoe and known mostly for the monthly snow-depth measurements taken in the nearby meadow during the winter months.
The last measurement in early June showed the snowpack at 0% of average after a historically dry winter, conditions that pitched the state into severe drought with accurate predictions of a dangerous fire season.
Yet among the devastation, there were small victories, with little damage to homes in the Christmas Valley area on Highway 89 as the fire moved through Monday night into Tuesday.
In the Echo Lake area, firefighters saved many of the historic cabins in the area, as well as the city of Berkeley’s family and summer camp and the general store at the boat launch.
Firefighters maintained an unrelenting pace throughout the night.
“It was wind like this all night,” Cal Fire Capt. Mark Christiansen, on a strike team from Santa Clara, said Tuesday morning while his crew siphoned water from the lake to refill their rig. “When a spot fire starts, we try to get it right away before it grows big.”
Those winds kept a steady ember rainfall sparking spot fires in the area Tuesday morning. Crews paused their work cutting fire breaks to attack those small spot fires, Christiansen said.
Yet the massive blaze continued its largely unchecked assault on the region, with spot fires lighting new blazes up to a mile ahead.
With vegetation so dry, any ember that blows past defenses is likely to ignite a new spot fire, said Cal Fire spokesman Jason Hunter, a captain with the West Sacramento Fire Department.
“Our biggest concern is the wind,” he said.
Chronicle staff writers Danielle Echeverria and Jill Tucker contributed to this report.
Julie Johnson, Sarah Ravani, Lauren Hepler, and Nanette Asimov are San Francisco Chronicle staff writers. Email: email@example.com, firstname.lastname@example.org, email@example.com, firstname.lastname@example.org Twitter: @juliejohnson, @SarRavani, @LAHepler, @NanetteAsimov
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