September 17, 2021

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Caldor Fire ‘knocking on the door’ of Lake Tahoe Basin, Cal Fire says – San Francisco Chronicle

5 min read

A scramble is on in the Sierra to seize on favorable weather conditions and keep the flames of the Caldor Fire out of the Lake Tahoe basin.

The nine-day-old blaze that has already destroyed 400 homes and consumed 106,000 acres is now the “No. 1 priority in the nation” for firefighting resources, Cal Fire Director Thom Porter said on Monday.

He warned that the fire was “knocking on the door” of the Lake Tahoe region, even after crews were encouraged by progress getting the fire 5% contained over the weekend. Now, they’re just hoping the amenable weather lasts.

“We have all efforts in place to keep it out of the basin,” Porter said, “but we need to be aware that it is a possibility based on the way the fires have been burning.”

More than 1,700 firefighters and support personnel were working the dense, mountainous terrain as telltale signs of wildfire descended on one of California’s most famous natural landmarks. Lake Tahoe’s famous sapphire-blue water turned an ominous orange. Smoke choked the air as schools closed and resorts shuttered summer operations. Tourists and locals alike debated when it might be time to leave, especially with parts of busy Highway 50 closed.

All the uncertainty comes at a crucial moment: During the last year-and-a-half of pandemic shutdowns and reopenings, Tahoe has been grappling with an influx of remote workers and tourists seeking outdoor refuge from mask mandates and virus anxiety.

As fire posed a new threat this week, some locals called for tourists to stay away. Others said the onus was on would-be vacationers to monitor the situation.

“We don’t want to be in the business of suggesting whether they should or shouldn’t come up because we don’t know about their health conditions or how they might be affected,” said Carol Chaplin, president and CEO of the Lake Tahoe Visitors Authority. “It changes so much. We don’t know what’s going to happen.”

Signs of the Caldor Fire, along with the Dixie Fire burning farther north, were also visible in the Bay Area. Smoke drifting south from the fires was expected to linger, causing hazy skies. The Bay Area Air Quality Management District extended an air quality advisory through Tuesday, but because most of the smoke was expected to say high in the air, a Spare the Air alert wasn’t needed. Air quality across the region was expected to be in either the “good” or “moderate” range Tuesday, the air district said.

The Dixie Fire burning in Butte, Plumas, Tehama, Lassen and Shasta counties saw a small jump in spread on Sunday because of cooler temperatures and increasing humidity, Cal Fire reported. It grew just over 1,700 acres Sunday night, burning a total of 725,821 acres after leaving a trail of near-total-destruction in towns like Greenville in recent weeks.

On the front lines of the Caldor Fire in El Dorado and Amador counties, more than 17,000 structures remained threatened on Monday, Cal Fire said. Fewer than 200 residents in El Dorado County were under evacuation orders, but wider warning zones remained.

With air sensors in the Tahoe area already maxing out above 500 AQI — meaning the air is hazardous and likely to impact healthy people — many locals started to evacuate even without an official order to do so.

Instead of dropping off their 2-year-old son for his first day of preschool in North Tahoe on Monday morning, Mike Rogge and his wife loaded up their car for an 8-hour drive south to Palm Springs to evade the hazardous air. Rogge, a magazine publisher, woke up with a scratchy throat and decided with his wife to evacuate — for at least a week.

“We’re not the first ones to leave, and I imagine we won’t be the last,” Rogge said. “I guess this is just part of living here now. It’s sad.”

For the past week, firefighters have been battling the Caldor Fire along with the Tamarack Fire — measured at more than 68,000 acres with 82% containment — south of the lake basin.

Last week, the U.S. Forest Service shut down all national forests in Northern California through Sept. 6. That includes the ones surrounding Tahoe, where some of the region’s most popular trails, campgrounds, lakes and backcountry areas are located.

California State Parks also banned campfires at campgrounds in the High Sierra last week, including the Tahoe and Truckee regions. The agency followed up over the weekend by shutting down its trio of popular West Shore parks — D.L. Bliss, Ed Z’berg Sugar Pine Point and Emerald Bay — until further notice “to help reduce traffic and visitation in the area.”

Through it all, Tahoe hotel operators and business owners are fielding endless phone calls from prospective visitors as the Labor Day holiday weekend approaches.

“The most common question of course is, ‘Is it going to be smoky on ‘X’ day?’ which is difficult to answer,” said Andy Chapman, chief marketing officer for the North Lake Tahoe Convention and Visitor Bureau. “We’re telling people, it shifts and things change.”

On Monday, fire crews planned to focus on building and strengthening containment lines, especially on the fire’s south end just north of Omo Ranch Road, said Cal Fire spokesman Keith Wade. One of the biggest challenges is rollouts — a term referring to dry, dead timber burning and smoldering as it rolls down hill, which is “easily igniting other vegetation,” he said.

Wade said fire crews were carrying out active air fight against the fire, and dropped 300,000 gallons of water and nearly 300,000 gallons of retardant Sunday. Heading into the new week, the weather “was, and still is, favorable for us,” he said.

So far, Tahoe tourism leaders say the uncertainty isn’t leading to an unusually high number of hotel cancellations. It seems, they said, that many Labor Day visitors are waiting to make the call on their trips until the last minute.

Residents like Rogge hope they’ll reconsider to leave roads open for emergency crews.

“Please leave Tahoe alone right now,” he said. “I understand that this is a tourism community, but it is a community first.”

Jessica Flores, Lauren Hepler and Gregory Thomas are San Francisco Chronicle staff writers. Email: lauren.hepler@sfchronicle.com, gthomas@sfchronicle.com jessica.flores@sfchronicle.com, Twitter: @LAHepler @GregRThomas @jesssmflores

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