Driven by gusty winds, the Caldor fire is now less than 15 miles from South Lake Tahoe, prompting fire crews to mount a potentially make-or-break effort to stop it from burning its way to the popular resort destination.
About 2,900 firefighters were attacking the blaze on Thursday, with many of them stationed along its northeast edge — which is burning toward the Tahoe Basin. Crews are constructing hand and bulldozer lines and conducting controlled burns when conditions allow, officials said.
Accelerating winds on Wednesday night spread spot fires that jumped a bulldozer line along the eastern edge of the blaze, an area of priority for firefighters, said Dave Pereira, an operations section chief representing the U.S. Forest Service and the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection Incident Management Team 6.
Battalion Chief Henry Herrera, a public information officer, said Thursday that the fire was about 14 miles from South Lake Tahoe, where homes, shops, motels and resorts cluster amid canopies of pine trees.
"There's definitely potential" for it to get there, Herrera said, "but it still has a ways to go."
He said crews are building containment lines and contingency — or backup — lines. Aircraft are also dropping retardant and helicopters are dropping water to contain it, officials said.
South and southwest winds that have spurred fire growth are expected to abate for several days. Still, the eastward expansion continues to threaten more communities, and on Thursday authorities issued new evacuation orders for areas closer to the southern shore of the lake.
Fire officials said a spot fire that ignited north of Highway 50 several days ago near the community of Kyburz had ballooned to about 2,300 acres by Thursday morning. It was expanding east as firefighters worked to contain it, Herrera said.
Equipment and personnel have poured into the Caldor firefighting effort, which is considered the No. 1 priority in the state. Since igniting Aug. 14, the blaze — just 12% contained — has engulfed more than 136,000 acres and destroyed at least 465 homes.
"We feel pretty confident that the work that we are doing should keep it from getting to South Lake Tahoe. That's not to say it's not a threat; it's definitely a threat," Herrera said.
Anxiety in South Lake Tahoe hung thick in the air Thursday, even as a blanket of smoke that has for days choked the area eased slightly.
“Up until yesterday I was only worried about the smoke, but today I’m also worried about the fire,” said Lucy Watts, 61, who was visiting the area from Missouri.
She is one of many vacationers who are “getting out of dodge” early, she said as she stood on a deserted downtown street. Her friend, Pam Johnston, said their hotel sent them a letter advising them that evacuation is a possibility and urging them to take medications and valuables with them anytime they left the room.
“All the things on our to-do list, like the Emerald Bay Cruise, are closed,” said Johnston, 61, noting that the falling ash has at times been so thick that she’s had to shake it out of her hair. “There’s not much reason to stay.”
At the nearby Driftwood Cafe, co-owner Bud Hillman said the town had been bustling and in “full summertime mode” until the fire ignited and the roads closed last week. The cafe often has an hourlong wait at this time of year, he said, but on Thursday morning, nearly every table sat empty.
Hillman was hopeful that people would return to Tahoe for Labor Day, but the smoke outside thickened even as he spoke. “Yesterday was the slowest day we’ve had in years — or at least since the start of COVID,” he said. “It’s been like one thing after another.”
— CAL FIRE AEU (@CALFIREAEU) August 26, 2021
Officials issued new evacuation orders for the community of Twin Bridges east to Echo Summit; for the area from Highway 50 south to the Amador and Alpine County lines; and from Highway 50 north to Flagpole Peak.
Evacuation warnings in El Dorado County went into effect for Christmas Valley from Highway 89 west to Echo Summit and from Highway 89 due west to Watershed Ridge and south to the Amador/El Dorado County line.
In Alpine County, evacuation warnings went into effect for Highway 89 south from Luther Pass Road to the Pickets Junction, as well as Highway 88 west to Kirkwood.
A Highway 50 closure has been extended east to Meyers, around the junction with Highway 89. Fire officials advised those evacuating the area to head east on Highway 50.
This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.