A ferocious wildfire approached Lake Tahoe just hours after roads were clogged with fleeing cars when the entire California resort city of South Lake Tahoe was ordered to evacuate and communities just across the state line in Nevada were warned to get ready to leave.
he popular vacation haven normally filled with tens of thousands of summer tourists was emptied out Monday as the massive Caldor Fire expanded to the north and south. Vehicles loaded with bikes and camping gear and hauling boats were in gridlock traffic, stalled in hazy, brown air that smelled like a campfire.
Police and other emergency vehicles whizzed by.
“It’s more out of control than I thought,” evacuee Glen Naasz said of the fire that by late Monday had crossed state highways 50 and 89 and burned mountain cabins as it churned down slopes into the Tahoe Basin.
Additional strike teams arrived just after dark and many of the new firefighters were immediately dispatched to protect homes in the Christmas Valley area about 10 miles (16 kilometers) south of the city, said fire spokesman Dominic Polito.
“We’re flooding the area with resources,” he said. “Wherever there are structures, there are firefighters on the ground.”
Ken Breslin was stuck in bumper-to-bumper traffic less than a mile (1.6 kilometers) from his home in the city of 22,000, 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.”
As flames churned toward South Lake Tahoe, residents just over the state line in Douglas County, Nevada were under evacuation warnings.
Monday’s fresh evacuation orders, unheard of in the city, came a day after communities several miles south of the lake were abruptly ordered to leave as the fire raged nearby. South Lake Tahoe’s main medical facility, Barton Memorial Hospital, proactively evacuated dozens of patients, and the El Dorado Sheriff’s Office transferred inmates to a neighboring jail.
“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 threat of fire is so widespread that the US Forest Service announced Monday that all national forests in California would be closed until September 17.
“We do not take this decision lightly but this is the best choice for public safety,” Regional Forester Jennifer Eberlien said.
Overnight, the already massive Caldor Fire grew 7 miles (11 kilometers) in direction in one area northeast of Highway 50 and more than 8 miles (13 miles) in another, Cal Fire officials said.
More than 15,000 firefighters were battling dozens of California blazes, including crews from Utah, Washington, Wisconsin and West Virginia, said Mark Ghilarducci, director of California’s Office of Emergency Services. About 250 active-duty soldiers were being trained in Washington state to help with the arduous work of clearing forest debris by hand.
Crews from Louisiana, however, had to return to that state because of Hurricane Ida, “another major catastrophic event taking place in the country and is a pull on resources throughout the United States,” he said.
Porter said that only twice in California history have blazes burned from one side of the Sierra Nevada to the other, both this month, with the Caldor and Dixie fires. The Dixie, the second-largest wildfire in state history at 1,205 square miles (3,121 square kilometers) about 65 miles (105 kilometers) north of the Lake Tahoe-area blaze, prompted new evacuation orders and warnings Monday.
The Lake Tahoe area in the Sierra Nevada mountains is usually a year-round recreational paradise offering beaches, water sports, hiking, ski resorts and golfing. South Lake Tahoe, at the lake’s southern end, bustles with outdoor activities, and with casinos available in bordering Stateline, Nevada.
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