After firefighters caught a break with favorable weather Saturday, fire officials ordered more evacuations around the Tahoe Basin Sunday evening as crews dealt with a two-week-old blaze they said was “more aggressive than anticipated,” and continued to edge toward the pristine waters of Lake Tahoe.
“Today’s been a rough day and there’s no bones about it,” said Jeff Marsoleis, forest supervisor for El Dorado National Forest. A few days ago, he thought crews could halt the Caldor Fire’s eastern progress, but “today it let loose.”
Flames churned through mountains just a few miles southwest of the Tahoe Basin, where thick smoke sent tourists packing at a time when summer vacations would usually be in full swing ahead of the Labor Day weekend.
“To put it in perspective, we’ve been seeing about a half-mile of movement on the fire’s perimeter each day for the last couple of weeks, and today, this has already moved at 2.5 miles (4 kilometers) on us, with no sign that it’s starting to slow down," said Cal Fire Division Chief Eric Schwab.
Some areas of the Northern California terrain are so rugged that crews had to carry fire hoses by hand from Highway 50 as they sought to douse spot fires caused by erratic winds.
The forecast did not offer optimism: triple-digit temperatures were possible and the extreme heat was expected to last several days. A red flag warning for critical fire conditions was issued for Monday and Tuesday across the Northern Sierra.
The blaze that broke out August 14 was 19% contained after burning nearly 245 square miles (635 square kilometers) — an area larger than Chicago. More than 600 structures have been destroyed and at least 18,000 more were under threat.
The Caldor Fire has proved so difficult to fight that fire managers pushed back the projected date for full containment from early this week to Sept. 8. But even that estimate was tenuous.
Flames churned through mountains just a few miles southwest of the Tahoe Basin, where thick smoke sent tourists packing at a time when summer vacations would be in full swing ahead of the Labor Day weekend. Instead, souvenir shops and restaurants closed.
Smoke has choked the region's skies ever since the fire started Aug. 14. On Thursday, evacuation warnings were issued for the nearby communities in Christmas Valley – the first such warnings in the Lake Tahoe Basin since 2007.
On Friday, a day after tourism officials asked people to avoid South Lake Tahoe – which abuts the Nevada border – any remaining tourists stayed inside and away from the smoke.
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"Being closer to the state line, it’s all just pure tourism with everyone coming up here for casinos," said Breeana Cody, an employee at McP’s Taphouse Grill. "But everything is pretty vacant right now.”
Cody said it's been smoky for days on end. Ash has blanketed the area too.
“September until the end of the year is pretty good, but Labor Day weekend is really our big hurrah," Cody said.
With fewer customers, deciding who should work and when with less revenue coming in has also been a delicate balance for businesses in the area.
Cody said employees quitting has left McP's short-staffed.
"Obviously we don’t need it because of the volume right now," she said. "We’re not busy."
While surrounded by imposing lakefront mansions and massive cabins, South Lake Tahoe is home to thousands of service workers. Many of them are seeing their hours cut, business owners said.
Nahani Sandoval, assistant manager at Black Bear Trading Co., a souvenir shop, said she worries about employees who are losing work.
"It's just not enough to make ends meet," she said.
Business owners near the commercial center of South Lake Tahoe said they were still optimistic the fire wouldn't advance into main business district along Highway 50.
Andrés Delgadillo, co-owner of Los Mexicanos Mexican restaurant and Plaza Tapatia market, said he's still holding out hope that firefighters will prevent the fire from marching into the Lake Tahoe Basin.
“But anything is possible," Delgadillo said. "The wind could get really nasty and then all those sparks could fly and ignite.”
Delgadillo said that as a resident of South Lake Tahoe for over three decades, the smoke and fires are difficult to deal with but are a part of living in the area.
For him, the beauty of Lake Tahoe is well worth the strain of dealing with fires.
"Everything is a risk,'' Delgadillo said. "You come to the East Coast where they worry about hurricanes and all that stuff. It’s just something we have to deal with anywhere we are, so we’ll live with it. I’ve been here for 35 years so I’m not going to go anywhere unless I have to.”
Contributing: Jorge L. Ortiz, USA TODAY; The Associated Press
Follow reporter Terell Wilkins on Twitter, @terelljwilkins, call him at 252-367-8463 or email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
This article originally appeared on USATNetwork: Caldor Fire update: Evacuations ordered around Lake Tahoe basin