As Tahoe residents fled the Caldor Fire, the bears moved in — and pigged out – San Francisco Chronicle

As residents frantically evacuated a week ago from the approaching Caldor Fire, the last thing many South Lake Tahoe residents did was to pull their garbage cans to the curb. The problem: Garbage pickup wasn’t scheduled for four to five days, and refuse employees were also fleeing town.

So bears helped themselves to a rare feast.

“Bears are just having a heyday of it. It’s just a nightmare,” said John Tillman, owner of South Tahoe Refuse. “There’s so much garbage on the street because of the bears. Oh my God, they are making a mess.”

Since the evacuation, bear break-ins have been reported at about 70 homes and vehicles, according to the South Lake Tahoe Police Department — compared with just a few per week normally.

And it’s not just bears.

“After a bear breaks a door down, it’s free game for anything else that wants to go in,” said Lt. Travis Cabral of South Lake Tahoe Police.

Tillman said the problem got so bad that the Nevada Department of Wildlife reached out to his company and asked it to set up three temporary dump sites so residents and businesses could dump spoiled food or other mixed solid waste that can’t wait for pickup.

On every street, drivers find two or three bear messes, Tillman said.

“We’re just having to clean it up as we go,” he said. “It’s at least double from what they normally do.”

Many of Tillman’s roughly 130 employees are local and evacuated. In the days after the evacuations, Tillman’s crews secured badges from the El Dorado Sheriff’s Office to make trash runs in portions of evacuated South Lake Tahoe. By Monday, 95% of Tillman’s crew had returned and the trucks resumed a normal schedule — and began to deal with the messes.

They found unlatched dumpsters with trash strewn around them; broken fences where bears tried to access garbage cans; a pried-open bear box; and storefront garbage cans popped open like soda cans.

“If it smells and they think there’s food in it, they will go for it,” he said.

Some residents left food in their garages that started rotting — and bears, which can pick up a scent a mile away, have noticed.

“There’s been two or three garage doors with holes in them,” Tillman said.

Sometimes drivers for South Tahoe Refuse spot the culprits.

“We’ve seen the local bears, but also wild bears that have been fleeing the fire,” Tillman said. One driver spotted a limping bear near Heavenly Valley on his morning garbage run, possibly injured by the fire.

Last week, an adult black bear that had third-degree burns on its paws from the Caldor Fire was euthanized by state wildlife officials.

It’s not just bears that have enjoyed the garbage. Drivers have reported seeing raccoons, crows and even porcupines scrounging for leftovers.

“They’ve had free run of the town, and they’ve been taking advantage of it,” Tillman said.

Tillman remained evacuated from his home in unincorporated South Lake Tahoe on Monday and spent the past week sleeping in the transfer station warehouse. While walking his dog Friday, he watched as a bear nudged open an unlocked door to the warehouse.

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“Oh s— ,” he muttered to himself, before panning to a second bear by a nearby tree. The bear climbed into a pile of trash, ate and left — and came back an hour later.

Police and sheriff’s deputies in El Dorado County, who have stepped up patrols in evacuation areas, have been seeing more bears around or even inside homes since people fled.

“It’s pretty obvious when you get inside and you see the target: a refrigerator,” said Sgt. Simon Brown of the El Dorado County Sheriff’s Office.

Brown said law enforcement officials have been leaving courtesy notes at homes where bears have broken in, to alert the owners when they return. Officers have found front doors busted open as well as garage doors ripped down and trash cans mauled.

“We’re going to see what happens when the humans come back,” Brown said. “I do expect as people come back, the bears will go back to their normal activity.”

Authorities always warn residents to keep garbage and food safely stored to prevent bears from developing bad habits that can lead to them relying on human food.

San Francisco Chronicle staff writer Kurtis Alexander contributed to this report.

Matthias Gafni is a San Francisco Chronicle staff writer. Email: matthias.gafni@sfchronicle.com Twitter: @mgafni