Caldor fire burns more than 440 homes as Lake Tahoe air quality ranks among worst in U.S.

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GRIZZLY FLATS CALIF. - AUG. 18, 2021. The Caldor Fire leaves a moonscape of burned forest, homes and vehicles in the unincorporated El Dorado community of Grizzly Flats on Wednesday, Aug. 18, 2021. (Luis Sinco / Los Angeles Times)
The Caldor fire leaves a moonscape of burned forest, homes and vehicles in the unincorporated El Dorado community of Grizzly Flats. (Luis Sinco / Los Angeles Times)

More than 440 homes have been destroyed by the raging Caldor fire, and smoke has created conditions so hazardous that the air quality around the blaze is the worst in the country.

Burning through rugged terrain east of Sacramento, the Caldor fire grew to more than 100,000 acres over the weekend as it creeps toward South Lake Tahoe. The fire was at 9% containment Monday night after spreading unchecked for more than a week.

Strong winds up to 40 mph spurred furious growth over the weekend, increasing the fire's size by 15,000 acres Saturday and into Sunday morning.

The expansion of the blaze — now covering 114,116 acres — has slowed amid weakening winds, but flames continue to threaten more than 17,000 structures, according to the latest incident report.

Winds, now at 7 to 10 mph, are still pushing the flames north and east, toward the southern end of Lake Tahoe. Smoke has choked the region, spurring "hazardous" air quality throughout the Lake Tahoe Basin, according to the Air Quality Index.

On Monday afternoon, Tahoe Vista, a census-designated place on the north shore of the lake, had an AQI rating of 558, the worst in the country. Higher numbers represent more pollution; ratings of 300 and up are considered hazardous. The concentration of small particulate matter in Tahoe Vista — typically a picturesque haven — was 58 times the World Health Organization's exposure recommendation.

Social media posts showed eerie, orange, ash-filled skies. Authorities advised residents to avoid outdoor exercise, shut windows to keep dirty air out and run air purifiers if possible. The air quality Monday was so bad from the fire that it spurred the closure of Nevada state parks in the Tahoe area and schools in Incline Village, located in Nevada along the northeastern edge of the lake. Forecasts showed that the unhealthy air quality could last through the weekend.

Nine national forests are closed amid the increasing fire danger. On Monday, it was confirmed that 447 homes have gone up in flames across the burn area. Six commercial buildings and 162 minor structures were also destroyed, and at least 26 large structures have been damaged.

Much of the destruction occurred in the Grizzly Flats area and surrounding communities, which the fire decimated several days after igniting Aug. 14, said Capt. Jason Hunter, a spokesperson for the Caldor fire.

The town was a smoldering moonscape Sunday. Scorched trees lined the road like blackened toothpicks, some still burning from the inside. The smoky silence was broken only by the occasional thundering crack of one falling to the ground.

Downed power lines snaked alongside the streets. The post office was gone, its wheelchair ramp leading to a pile of rubble. All that was left of the Grizzly Flats Community Church was its foundation and the twisted metal skeletons of chairs, still arranged in rows ready for service. The door was draped over the debris like a piece of melted cheese. Two Little Free Library kiosks near the road were untouched, the books inside them intact.

Firefighters are focusing on containing the blaze west of Highway 89, an artery that borders the western edge of Lake Tahoe.

Chief Mike Blankenheim, of the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection's Amador-El Dorado unit, said the strategy will give personnel a wide area to attack the fire.

"We have no desire to let the fire get to Highway 89; we do not want to be fighting fire from Highway 89," Blankenheim said during a community meeting Sunday. "The reason for making that move, like I said before, is to give our folks plenty of room to make different decisions and choose different places to fight the fire from."

A spot fire ignited north of Highway 50 near the town of Kyburz and had grown to 250 acres by Monday morning. Firefighters were beating it back and protecting structures in the area, officials said.

"It's still a concern; it's still burning over there, but they were able to minimize the spread of it with those lines that are being put in — so more work on that today," Hunter said.

Authorities have shut down a stretch of Highway 50 for the foreseeable future, and some nearby homes have lost power, fire officials said. New evacuation orders were issued Friday.

On Saturday evening, the El Dorado County Sheriff’s Office asked for help finding Marvin Hardy Creel, a 57-year-old who was expected to have evacuated from Grizzly Flats. Authorities said Creel phoned a family member Wednesday, but the call had poor reception. Repeated calls to his phone since have not been answered. Authorities found his white Dodge pickup truck abandoned in the Grizzly Flats area.

Nearly 30,000 people have been evacuated due to the Caldor fire, one of several large blazes in California. Among those who have hunkered down in evacuation shelters were Frank and Jeannette Castaneda, who have been living out of their truck in the parking lot of a community center.

Frank, 73, estimated that it was the sixth time they’d had to evacuate in the 35-plus years they’ve lived in the rural Pacific House community in the El Dorado foothills.

The Cameron Park Community Center was full Saturday, with 42 people staying inside and 27 more on the grounds. With the shelter at capacity, the Castanedas set up folding chairs under trees for the afternoon. Maggie, a Catahoula Leopard dog, was sprawled out on her bed between them. She had finally started to eat and was even sleeping a bit, said Jeannette, 70.

Although fires used to force them from their home every 10 years or so, the couple said, the pace has picked up recently, and the blazes have grown fiercer.

“The fires seem to be getting bigger and bigger every year,” Frank said.

Caldor is one of more than a dozen large wildfires raging across the state. More than 1.54 million acres have been charred this year, according to Cal Fire.

This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.

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