'Battling what we can battle': Lighter winds aid crews fighting Caldor Fire raging near Lake Tahoe

Crews fighting the Caldor Fire in California, burning within miles of Lake Tahoe, were aided by better weather conditions Thursday after days of fierce wind gusts intensified the massive blaze.

Though localized gusts were still likely, lighter winds and improved humidity levels were forecast for Thursday and Friday, allowing fire crews to increase containment of the fire and target troublesome areas, incident meteorologist Jim Dudley said Thursday.

"We lost the winds aloft," Dudley said. "It’s a good day today to not have gusty winds up on the ridges."

But he added that firefighters would still have to face unpredictable "terrain-driven winds" that occur as the sun heats the ground, as well as dry conditions that may lead to spot fires and continue to threaten homes in the California-Nevada alpine region.

“We’re battling what we can battle and waiting for those winds to subside,” said Stephen Vollmer, a fire behavior analyst for the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection.

The Caldor Fire, which has forced an unprecedented evacuation of all 22,000 residents of South Lake Tahoe and tens of thousands of tourists, has burned for almost three weeks, scorching hundreds of homes and vacation rentals along its trek toward Nevada's border. The fire was 25% contained as of Thursday morning and had surged to about 330 square miles, according to Cal Fire.

At Tahoe's Heavenly Mountain Resort, firefighters doused buildings using snow-making devices. Crews tried to steer flames away from urban areas. And thick smoke blanketed South Lake Tahoe, where at least 33,000 structures were still threatened. Meanwhile, casinos and stores began to close Wednesday morning in Nevada as the blaze approached.

President Joe Biden issued a federal emergency declaration Wednesday ordering federal assistance to supplement the more than 15,000 firefighters and additional out-of-state crews battling more than a dozen active fires in California.

On Thursday, CalFire said wildfires have burned through 3,000 square miles in the state this year as the monstrous, weeks-old Dixie Fire continues to burn about 65 miles north of the Caldor Fire. The second-largest wildfire in state history, the Dixie Fire was 55% contained at about 1,340 square miles as of Thursday morning, according to Cal Fire.

The Dixie Fire may have also drawn resources away from the Caldor Fire in its early days, preventing already stretched-thin fire crews from containing the Lake Tahoe-area fire before it ballooned in size.

“I do think the Dixie and the way that it’s burned and its magnitude did impact the early response to the Caldor,” said Scott Stephens, a professor of wildland fire science at the University of California, Berkeley. “It really drew resources down so much that the Caldor got very few for the first couple days.”

While 6,550 firefighters battled the Dixie Fire, about 240 headed to the Lake Tahoe area in the first few days of the Caldor Fire. Days later, additional fire engines and firefighters were diverted to the second blaze, tripling its resources, but only after the fire had already destroyed dozens of homes.

Climate change and intense heat have fueled a dangerous and intense fire season this year.

“We are moving resources around as needed, sharing among the incidents,” Cal Fire Chief Thom Porter told reporters on Aug. 18, acknowledging crews were "having a very difficult time" because resources were so stretched.

Contributing: The Associated Press

Contact News Now Reporter Christine Fernando at cfernando@usatoday.com or follow her on Twitter at @christinetfern.

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Caldor Fire updates: Lighter winds offer firefighters hope near Tahoe

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