SOUTH LAKE TAHOE — A nightmare scenario that firefighters have worried about for years — a massive wildfire spreading uncontrollably into the forests around Lake Tahoe — drew closer to reality Monday as the Caldor Fire, whipped by drought and strong winds, advanced toward the iconic lake’s southern shoreline, with its narrow roads and densely wooded neighborhoods.
By mid-morning, emergency officials had ordered mandatory evacuations of 22,000 people in South Lake Tahoe, adding to the roughly 30,000 others who were already under evacuation orders in other parts of El Dorado County.
“There is fire activity happening in California that we have never seen before,” said Cal Fire Chief Thom Porter. “The critical thing is to evacuate early.”
The 177,260-acre fire, which began August 14 and was just 14% contained Monday, expanded by 20,000 acres overnight, Porter said, advancing as far as eight miles as winds picked up, humidity levels dropped and embers flew half a mile away. The fire had reached the Tahoe Basin, he said, but was “hung up” in the granite outcroppings and ridges around Lower Echo Lake and Lake Aloha in the Desolation Wilderness, about six miles southwest of South Lake Tahoe.
Already, the blaze has destroyed 472 structures and caused 5 injuries in rural communities along Highway 50 near Strawberry, Kyburz and Sierra-at-Tahoe ski area. Another 20,000 structures remained at risk, authorities said.
Tahoe is “more prepared than a lot of places in California,” said Scott Stephens, a professor of fire science at UC Berkeley, of firefighters in South Lake Tahoe. “But having that fire come over the top is going to test them. If it gets down into that part of the basin, it’s going to be intense. It’s going to be sad.”
The largest wildfire threat to the Lake Tahoe Basin in more than 100 years, the blaze has exploded out of control in part due to California’s drought conditions, the worst since 1976-77, which have left shrubs, trees and grasses at record dry levels. The cause of the fire is still unknown.
And there was little respite expected. The National Weather Service issued a red flag warning for much of the central and Northern Sierra through 11 p.m. Wednesday, forecasting winds of up to 35 miles an hour and low humidity levels.
The fire’s aggressive behavior prompted fire commanders to order evacuations to the waterline along 25 miles of Lake Tahoe’s west and south shores from Tahoma to the California-Nevada border. The area makes up about one-third of the famed alpine lake’s 72-mile shoreline, and includes some of its most beloved locations, visited by millions of people a year, including Emerald Bay, D.L. Bliss State Park, Rubicon Point, Sugar Pine State Park, Camp Richardson and Heavenly ski area.
The unprecedented evacuations caused a 4-mile long traffic jam along eastbound Highway 50 as vehicles piled with families, dogs, suitcases and camping gear inched through traffic toward the Nevada border.
“I’m stressed out,” said Gator Vivas, 24, blasting Johnny Cash’s “Ring of Fire” as he waited in the gridlock. “I have two houses out in Meyers and they’re both” ??” he cut a finger across his throat. “I figure if they for some reason don’t burn down, that’s a good day.”
If the fire burns forests in the basin, it could send ash and mud into the lake, harming its fragile, azure blue clarity, said Geoffrey Schladow, a professor of engineering at UC Davis and director of the Tahoe Environmental Research Center.
“Everybody is pretty on edge,” he said. “You always thought maybe it won’t happen. But it’s getting close to happening.”
Firefighters battled to keep the flames from moving over the granite outcroppings of Echo Summit along Highway 50. The biggest concern was that embers could blow over the ridge and rain down on South Lake Tahoe, causing multiple spot fires in forests that haven’t burned in generations.
The only major fire in the area in recent history occurred in 2007, when the Angora Fire, sparked by a campfire, burned 3,100 acres and destroyed 242 homes in the North Upper Truckee Road subdivision near the town of Meyers.
During that fire, Glen Naasz, 64, waited so long to leave he could feel the heat from the fire as it crept up to the homes across the street from his house.
“It was pretty scary ??” it was right here,” Naasz said, as he stood in the same driveway on Monday, packing up the same 1985 Toyota he did that day, with winter boots, buckets of contractor tools and bags of clothes.
Up the road, an evacuation siren blared as wind battered the trees around his gray-and-blue home, where Naasz has weathered two marriages, two divorces and now two fires.
“I have a feeling this is gonna be the end of Lake Tahoe,” he said.
Since the Angora Fire, the U.S. Forest Service, state and local agencies have steadily thinned forests around the Tahoe Basin to reduce fire risk. Altogether they have treated 65,000 acres in the 200,000-acre Tahoe Basin, according to the Tahoe Fire and Fuels Team, a collection of public agencies overseeing the work.
But amid the worst drought in 50 years, fire experts, local residents and millions of people who have visited and loved the Lake Tahoe area were holding their breath Monday.
“You’ve just got the one main road around the lake and various exit points,” said Malcolm North, a fire ecologist with the U.S. Forest Service in Mammoth Lakes. “You certainly could have problems if the fire cuts off the exit routes.”
North noted that significant progress has been made reducing fire risk. But a century of fire suppression, development in the woods, the drought and now climate change were creating a very dangerous situation, he said.
“This is the new normal,” he said. “I’m sure we are going to see fire in the basin again. Once you get these extreme weather conditions I’m not sure there’s much you can do to halt the advance of the fire.”