As the Caldor fire tore toward Lake Tahoe, California firefighters hacked down trees and bulldozed earth in paths up to 40 feet wide in the hopes that the fire would stop in its tracks when it reached their line of defense.
But after all that action, South Lake Tahoe and the neighborhoods to its south — all too familiar with the unruly nature of flames — are in a holding pattern on Friday. They must wait and see if the fire, which was between three to five miles away, will break through.
“The fire’s got to reach that containment line and hold,” said Kevin Brown, a spokesman for Cal Fire currently based in Placerville, about 65 miles from the lake.
The wind had eased by Friday morning, slowing the blaze enough for firefighters to attack it head on. But although cooler weather and lower winds are forecast for the coming days, “fire conditions could change in an hour or a day,” Mr. Brown said.
Fire authorities said they are also expecting the layer of smoke that helps to cool temperatures and hold flames at bay to lift around 10 a.m., worsening conditions somewhat on the eastern part of the fire.
As of Friday morning, the Caldor fire had burned close to 213,000 acres and was 29 percent contained. Crews continued dropping hundreds of thousands of gallons of water and fire retardant while firefighters crossed the water by boat — pumping water from Lake Tahoe to save remote cabins and vacation homes.
South of the lake, in Kirkwood, a small ski town, crews have been hosing down homes, checking for rogue embers and clearing space around homes and lodges in an attempt to protect them. In Christmas Valley, firefighters are felling trees and building containment lines.
Little remains known about the origins of the Caldor fire, which began almost three weeks ago near the Eldorado National Forest. Last month, it leveled much of the town of Grizzly Flats, and has so far destroyed more than 650 homes and 12 businesses, with tens of thousands more threatened. Four emergency workers and two civilians have been injured.
More than 50,000 people remain under evacuation orders, authorities said Friday.
For some, the first stop has been in Reno, Nev., which has become a refuge for people fleeing both the Dixie and Caldor fires. “It’s another day in the life of a California person: Everything’s on fire, here we go again,” said Martin Beirne, who stopped in the city after evacuating his home in South Lake Tahoe.
Mr. Beirne, who works as a landscaper in the threatened town of Meyers, said he had tried to remain as long as possible, working under a blanket of smoke that distorted his sense of time. “Once it started raining ash,” he added, “we all left.”
Jeffrey Spencer, 61, who also evacuated with his wife and mother-in-law from their home near the Eldorado National Forest, about 10 miles south of Lake Tahoe, said that though the fire continued to burn just miles from their house, he was feeling “cautiously hopeful.”
“Our lives and important papers and valuables, we got to get out,” Mr. Spencer said. “The rest can be replaced.”