Wildfire crews working around the clock managed to keep the Caldor Fire at bay of reaching the Lake Tahoe resort town of South Lake Tahoe on Wednesday, saving one of the largest cities in the region.
The Caldor Fire, which has been raging Eastward across El Dorado County since mid-August, started to approach the Lake Tahoe area earlier this week. Its close proximity caused the mass evacuation of the city and several surrounding towns on Monday, leaving the city all but deserted by Wednesday as wildfire fighters continued to fight back the fire. As of Wednesday, 729 structures had been destroyed by the fire, with 34,800 structures, most of which are located in South Lake Tahoe, remaining in danger.
California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection (Cal Fire) officials noted that they lucked out on Tuesday and Wednesday, as the Caldor Fire remained in the mountains and favorable winds pushed the fire away from the city. Officials also noted that while the fire was still away now, red flag warnings remained in effect and that the fire was not over yet.
“The fire was up in the mountains, away from the main portion of the town, which is a very good thing,” noted Cal Fire Team Six Spokesman Dave Lauchner on Wednesday. “We got lucky yesterday. The red flag warning was there, but the conditions weren’t as bad as predicted. So we were able to do a lot of good things to protect the community of South Lake Tahoe.
In addition to the wind helping move the fire out of South Lake Tahoe’s way, crews on the ground set up many fire breaks and containment lines, moving from 15% containment to 20% containment in less than 24 hours. Other unusual methods were also helped to keep back the fire on Tuesday and Wednesday, with crews manning snow-making machines and aiming them at the fire.
However, many wildfire crew members also noted the tough conditions they faced.
“It was eerie walking through South Lake Tahoe this morning,” said firefighter Carl Riley to the Globe between shifts on Wednesday. “I remember walking through deserted towns in Louisiana after Katrina when I volunteered there, but the discolored sky added an unworldliness to it. Then we went into the mountains and saw the fire up close. It’s much worse in person than pictures could ever show. But were doing what we can and keeping it away.”
Despite greater containment, Fire still a danger to Lake Tahoe Area
South Lake Tahoe officials also voiced concerns of keeping the fire at bay, but also said that saving people was more important than tourism dollars, an industry that is largely the lifeblood of the city.
“We’re just right now trying to see what happens with the structures and businesses in our community and our homes,” explained South Lake Tahoe Mayor Tamara Wallace at a press conference. “There was a huge amount of granite between the fire and us and I woke up on Sunday and it had, it had jumped that granite and now it is in the Lake Tahoe basin and homes are threatened and our community is threatened and I never thought that was possible.”
“There was a lot of traffic, but we were able to evacuate our city in just five hours, which is good. We do have a very important holiday weekend. But we have good summers so Labor Day is sort of the last hurrah and, honestly, people’s lives are more important than worrying about tourism.”
Increased wildfire concerns from the nearby Dixie Fire and other active wildfires across the state have led to more extreme safety measures in the past week, including the U.S. Forest Service National Forest announcing temporary closures until mid-September, the U.S. Government assisting in fire detection, and an increasing number of evacuations in El Dorado County and Alpine County, with the neighboring state of Nevada considering similar measures, including ordering their own state of emergency earlier this week.
To date, the Caldor Fire was burned more than 200,000 acres and has caused the evacuation of 53,000 people as of Wednesday afternoon.
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