September 17, 2021

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How South Lake Tahoe was saved from the Caldor Fire – SF Gate

5 min read

Last week, at a community meeting, fear mounted in South Lake Tahoe as the Caldor Fire raged and a red flag warning lurked in the forecast.

Cal Fire officials told residents they needed a defense of 3,000 to 5,000 firefighters. The Caldor Fire was elevated to the top priority in the nation and, in an attempt to assure residents and community members, Cal Fire officials said that so many resources were coming to Lake Tahoe, they were causing a traffic jam at base camp.

The days that followed were tense as the fire made its advance into the Lake Tahoe Basin. On Sunday, Aug. 29, southeastern winds flared up and the Caldor Fire burned more than 20,000 acres in 24 hours. On Monday, 3,684 firefighters were working across all fronts, as flames ran up and over Echo Summit, burning cabins built and maintained by generations of families, many from the Bay Area. For the thousands of homes nestled below, in the woods of Christmas Valley and Meyers, the future looked grim. 

But then, something incredible happened. On Monday night, the fire ran down the valley, to the edge of the neighborhood in Christmas Valley, where it shot embers over Highway 89, starting a spot fire in the forest just above the houses on the other side of the road and continued burning east. 

Both sides of the valley were engulfed in flames. But as of Friday, many of the homes in Christmas Valley, Meyers and South Tahoe are still standing. 

On Friday morning, the daily reports showed that only 2,200 acres had burned in the prior 24 hours — a fraction of the acreage compared to Sunday night. The fire is 29% contained. One fire official mentioned that luck played a big role in averting a major crisis this week. Others said that the winds didn’t wreck the havoc many feared. 

Parker Wilbourn, spokesperson for Cal Fire, says that there were three big factors to the success of this week.

First, the progress on the Caldor Fire could not have happened without the sheer number of firefighters, engines, helicopters, bulldozers and other resources. Over the course of the week, nearly a thousand more firefighters arrived; at the peak, firefighter boots on the ground numbered 4,451.

“Oh, it’s made an incredible difference,” Wilbourn said. “We have 523 fire engines on this incident. We’ve got 84 water tenders, 27 helicopters, 62 hand crews and 95 dozers. So we have a tremendous amount of resources fighting this fire.”

Two firefighters carry a water hose up the hill to extinguish a backfire set to prevent the Caldor Fire from spreading near South Lake Tahoe, Calif., Thursday, Sept. 2, 2021.

Two firefighters carry a water hose up the hill to extinguish a backfire set to prevent the Caldor Fire from spreading near South Lake Tahoe, Calif., Thursday, Sept. 2, 2021.

Jae C. Hong/Associated Press

Second, Wilbourn said that the massive deployment of resources in the Lake Tahoe basin over the last 5 to 10 years to prevent wildfire and promote forest health — steps that were taken to prevent a catastrophe exactly like the one the Caldor Fire threatened — directly helped firefighters combat flames in Lake Tahoe this week.

Finally, Wilbourn commended Lake Tahoe homeowners who heeded the advice officials have been shouting for years: defensible space.

“They’re taking ownership of their housing area and that’s phenomenal,” Wilbourn said. “We want to say thank you to the homeowners, as well as the forestry service, for their efforts.” 

Rocky Opliger, incident commander of Cal Fire, described at a community briefing on Thursday evening what he saw happen when the Caldor Fire approached Apache Avenue, a street at the edge of Meyers. Flames were stretching 150 feet high as the fire marched toward homes in Meyers, Opliger said. But once the fire reached parts of the forest that had seen recent thinning or controlled burns, the flames lowered to just 15 feet tall, which gave fire engines and hand crews a window to take action, stop the fire from advancing into the neighborhood and prevent homes from burning.

“That’s the kind of work we see in the entire South Lake area,” Opliger said. He noted that all of the work on the Caldor Fire has been a collaboration of federal, state and local agencies, supported by law enforcement and community leaders. “That’s those efforts of all the agencies working together.”

In the wake of the Angora Fire, which burned 280 structures in South Tahoe in 2007, almost two dozen agencies across the basin formed a partnership called the Tahoe Fire and Fuels Team with the explicit mission to reduce fuels in the wildland-urban interface (a term experts use to refer to the forests that edge neighborhoods) and prepare communities for the day a wildfire comes.

South Lake Tahoe saw that day this week. 

Since 2008, the Tahoe Fire and Fuels Team has treated some 65,000 acres in the Lake Tahoe basin’s wildland-urban interface, said Forest Schafer, director of the natural resources division of the California Tahoe Conservancy. Those acres of treatment include forest thinning — by hand and by machine — and prescribed burning. 

Between 2010 and 2020, Lake Tahoe basin agencies have spent $133 million on forest health projects that are mostly aimed at reducing fuels in the forest and protecting neighborhoods from wildfire.

This week, firefighters arrived in Lake Tahoe from at least eight different states, Wilbourn said, as well as crews from across all of California. He noted that he was sitting next to a firefighter from Los Angeles who joined the fight to help protect Lake Tahoe.

“The last thing anybody wants is to see Lake Tahoe burn,” Wilbourn said. “So we threw everything we had.”

On Friday morning, Cal Fire officials said they were “cautiously optimistic” about the Caldor Fire, but the work is not done yet. Huge dozer lines — built by machines with blades as wide as 10 feet, according to Wilbourn — are still getting built every day to defend South Tahoe from flames. And on Thursday, air attacks dropped 500,000 gallons of retardant and water on flames.

But the weather has taken a turn toward favorable conditions, granting firefighters with mild winds, lower temperatures and more nighttime humidity to help them make progress on containing the Caldor Fire. 

Cal Fire officials know that South Tahoe residents are eager to come home. Evacuation orders are still in effect.

“We will do everything we can to get people back into their homes,” Wilbourn said. “We understand that people are frustrated — they just want some sense of normalcy. They want to get back into their homes. And we totally empathize with that. But we want to do it in a safe way.”

Caldor Fire Updates



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