Caldor fire enters Lake Tahoe basin, threatening homes

The destructive Caldor fire swept into the Lake Tahoe Basin overnight, with firefighters battling to save mountain hamlets, ski resorts and homes as they work to prevent the flames from hitting populated areas near the lake.

The fire was fueled Monday by heavy winds, which allowed it to move much closer to Lake Tahoe. The fire jumped the 50 and 89 highways and was threatening Echo Summit and Meyers south of Lake Tahoe.

But an army of firefighters was on hand, trying to extinguish spot fires and protecting cabins and other structures in its path. Some structures burned Monday, but it was unclear how many.

The fire grew to more than 190,000 acres with nearly 500 structures burned and 33,000 threatened. It was 16% contained Tuesday morning.

The National Weather Service forecast another day of intense winds Tuesday moving to the east and southeast, bringing more challenges for firefighters.

Officials still hope the fire won’t hit Lake Tahoe. But if it does, experts say it could be profoundly destructive.

Not only would an urban conflagration in the South Lake Tahoe area threaten lives and homes, but it would also move faster, burn hotter and be significantly harder to fight, according to experts.

“They have long looked to that granite wall as what’s going to keep fire out,” said Crystal Kolden, a fire scientist at UC Merced, referring to a stony ridge atop the Tahoe Basin. “But this is a new world with climate change, and that basically is no longer a viable last line of defense.”

Evacuation orders were issued Monday for the area, causing hours of traffic jams. But by the afternoon, the traffic had eased and the towns were empty.

Flames from the Caldor Fire leap consume a hillside above Christmas Valley

Flames from the Caldor fire consume a hillside above Christmas Valley

(Noah Berger / Associated Press)

The evacuation order covers nearly all of the Lake Tahoe Basin in El Dorado County, from the California-Nevada state line on the lake’s southern end to Tahoma on its western shore.

Carol Bin, 61, said she moved her horses to Gardnerville, Nev., last week. A former Big Bear resident, she has faced evacuations before, and she wasn’t eager to do it again.

“The hardest part is to pack,” Bin said from her driveway in Christmas Valley. “Do I pack for a week? Or do I pack like I’m never coming back?”

Caldor fire spokesman Jason Hunter said the fire had been “spotting” — generating wind-blown sparks that can create new fires — up to a half mile away in recent days. Strengthening winds in the area, however, could carry dangerous embers well over a mile, he warned. Red-flag warnings in the fire zone indicated that there could be gusts as strong as 35 mph through Tuesday evening.

“Our significant concern is that spotting,” Hunter said, specifically “embers being blown from up at the ridgetop landing somewhere down in the valley and taking hold.”

Hunter said crews on Monday were busy making tactical fire stops along the Highway 50 corridor on Echo Summit in an effort to get ahead of further creep.

Michael Hicks, who owns the historic Strawberry Lodge on Highway 50, was among the many area residents anxiously watching the fire’s path from afar.

“Hopefully they can save as much of the community as possible,” Hicks said. But, he added, that is “up to the winds and the firefighters.”

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