CARSON CITY, Nevada – With the growing Caldor Fire encroaching on Lake Tahoe, evacuation orders expanded in Nevada as the flames marched east.
The fire has forced thousands of people to flee their homes as it descends into the Lake Tahoe basin in California. On Tuesday, the fire spread toward the Nevada state line.
Residents in parts of Douglas County were told to leave the area as the fire has grown to nearly 320 square miles with only 20% containment, the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection said.
Another red flag warning for potential fire danger is in effect Wednesday. The National Weather Service said low humidity and wind gusts up to 45 mph over ridge lines in the Sierra could help spark new flames.
Firefighters are battling the growing blaze amid the poor conditions just 3 miles outside of South Lake Tahoe, but they were aided by better-than-expected weather overnight. “We lucked out a little bit yesterday,” Cal Fire Operations Section Chief Tim Ernst said.
In Nevada, evacuation centers have opened up to take in the 22,000 South Lake Tahoe residents and scores others from the surrounding area. However, as the evacuation zone expanded, shelters in Carson City and Douglas County were near or at capacity on Tuesday.
Patrick Mack fled South Lake Tahoe as the jammed lines of cars eased Monday. Mack didn’t want to leave, but he had no choice.
“I was forced to leave,” he said. “I wanted to go back, but the smoke is just as bad here, so I can’t imagine what it looks like in town.”
As he fled, Mack’s two dogs, his wife and her friend were ahead of him. They separated and haven’t reconnected.
“I’m just going to sit tight,” he said Tuesday at Fuji Park Fairgrounds, where he built a lean-to in a parking space and went to sleep on the cement, “because moving around doesn’t help when you’re looking for somebody.”
Winds carried the fire’s embers more than a mile from the fire line, according to Cal Fire. Flames raced from treetop to treetop and containment lines in parts of the blaze were threatened Tuesday, Cal Fire said.
The fire has destroyed nearly 550 homes and over 180 other structures, but more than 34,800 other buildings are threatened, Cal Fire said.
Ernst said while winds were active, firefighters had opportunities overnight to make progress on slowing the fire’s growth.
Along the section of the fire threatening to move closer to Nevada, Ernst said crews have created lines to protect homes and other buildings. Closer to South Lake Tahoe, Ernst said crews also put up protective lines. “This whole community is looking really good right now,” he said.
“The fire burned through there extremely fast, extremely hot. And we did the best that we could,” Cal Fire Division Chief Erich Schwab said of firefighters’ efforts to protect remote cabins in one area of the blaze.
Lake Tahoe is known for glitz. But thousands of Caldor Fire evacuees are blue collar.
According to the National Interagency Fire Center, 83 large fires are burning in 10 states with more than 3,900 square miles affected. In California, 13 large fires are burning more than 2,200 square miles.
Timothy Pritchard panicked when police knocked on his door. “I had to pack what I could,” the 64-year-old retiree said.
He grabbed important legal documents, credit cards and checkbooks. However, he left behind several sentimental items, including mementos of his late girlfriend.
“I just pray to God they’ll be there, but I had to do what I had to do,” he said.
Pritchard, who had lived at South Lake Tahoe for 13 years, was among the first evacuees to arrive in Reno, Nevada, after being turned away from a Carson City shelter that reached maximum capacity.
“I’m just tired and stressed right now,” he said.
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Tuesday, Nevada Gov. Steve Sisolak remained hopeful crews can keep the raging Caldor Fire from crossing Nevada’s borders, but said the state is prepared to fight the blaze should it escape the natural bathtub created by Lake Tahoe.
Sisolak said he was pleased with the gains firefighters made in the one day since the National Guard was brought in to help battle the blaze.
“We’re using all of our resources, everything at our disposal,” Sisolak told reporters as ash fell outside Nevada’s Emergency Operations Center in Carson City.
Nevada Division of Forestry officials noted the Caldor Fire is only the second fire to summit the Sierra in recorded history.
The other is the Dixie Fire, which started in late July and is still burning near Lassen Volcanic National Park. The second largest in state history, the wildfire grew to 1,318 square miles as of Wednesday, with 52% containment, Cal Fire said. It also prompted new evacuation orders this week.
The Caldor Fire has threatened not only people’s homes and businesses, but also the areas scenic outdoor recreation activities.
Heavenly and Kirkwood — owned by Vail Resorts — have not sustained any property damage as of Tuesday afternoon, spokesperson Susan Whitman said. However, all employees and guests were forced to leave, she confirmed in an email.
As flames moved toward Heavenly, on the California-Nevada border, officials turned on the mountain’s snow-making machines.
The fire burned through Sierra-at-Tahoe, a resort on the west side of the Tahoe Basin near Echo Summit, but initial reports indicated the base area, lodge, administration building, and gear shop were saved, according to Mike Reitzell, president of Ski California, an organization that represents ski resorts throughout California and Nevada.
“We know there is going to be some damage,” Reitzell said.
Contributing: James DeHaven and Amy Alonzo, Reno Gazette Journal; The Associated Press