California wildfire forces thousands to flee South Lake Tahoe

Mark Chediak

Thousands of people were ordered to leave South Lake Tahoe as a fast-growing wildfire advanced toward the town, threatening one of Northern California’s tourist hubs and its surrounding resort areas.

Residents clogged the few roads that led out of the region as the Caldor Fire closed the westbound direction of a major highway that connects the city to Sacramento. The blaze was moving toward the southern side of the Lake Tahoe basin after it made an unprecedented run through bone-dry heavy timber over the weekend, California officials said.

With the Caldor Fire approaching, traffic on Highway 50 stands still as South Lake Tahoe, Calif., as residents try to evacuate on Monday, Aug. 30, 2021. `

Caldor, which erupted Aug. 14 on the hills east of Sacramento, has injured five, destroyed 472 structures and burned 177,260 acres. It’s the second fire in state history to burn from one side of the Sierra Nevada mountain range to the other. The other, the Dixie Fire, has been burning for more than six weeks in the Sierras north of Sacramento.

“Caldor is a real tough one for us,” Thom Porter, the fire chief for the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection, or Cal Fire, said Monday afternoon in a briefing. “We need to be really cognizant that there is fire activity happening in California that we have never seen before.”

Smoke from Caldor Fire in California covers Lake Tahoe in the Incline, Nev., area on Tuesday, Aug. 24, 2021.

The fire was “held up” at a mountain ridge overlooking Lake Tahoe but was already starting spot fires into the basin, Porter said.

This Aug. 29, 2021, satellite image provided by Maxar Technologies shows an overview of the Caldor Fire near South Lake Tahoe, Calif.

Lake Tahoe, which straddles California and Nevada, typically attracts throngs of crowds over the summer for its beaches, hiking trails and casinos. It also became a popular destination for remote workers from the San Francisco Bay area during the pandemic, sending real estate prices soaring.

Lately, the region has been choked by smoke from the Caldor Fire, forcing tourists to flee and leaving beaches empty. Officials had warned earlier Monday that South Lake Tahoe, with a population of about 22,000, may need to evacuate due to critical fire weather.

With the Caldor Fire approaching, Chad Merritt stands outside his vehicle as evacuee traffic stands still in South Lake Tahoe, Calif., on Monday, Aug. 30, 2021.

The combination of a high-pressure ridge across the West and the building low pressure in the Pacific Northwest will lead to an increase in winds across the region, said Marc Chenard, a senior branch forecaster for the U.S. Weather Prediction Center. That could fan the flames over the Echo Summit mountain pass and into the Lake Tahoe basin early this week. The National Weather service issued a red flag warning for gusty winds and exceptionally dry conditions in the region for Monday and Tuesday.

California and much of the West will remain hot and dry. The remnants of Hurricane Nora, which struck Mexico over the weekend, will cause heavy rain across Arizona and New Mexico, but that won’t come far enough north to blunt the fire threat.