Flames raced across treetops and through drought-stricken vegetation as firefighters scrambled to keep a growing California wildfire from reaching a resort city at the southern tip of Lake Tahoe after evacuation orders were expanded to neighboring Nevada.
Thick smoke from the Caldor Fire enveloped the city of South Lake Tahoe, which was all but deserted during a summer week usually bustling with tourists.
The National Weather Service warned that critical weather conditions through Wednesday could include extremely low humidity, dry fuel and gusts up to 30 mph.
“With those winds, as it ran through the forest it created what’s called an active crown fire run, where the fire actually goes from treetop to treetop,” said Stephen Vollmer, a fire behavior analyst for the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection.
He said embers were being cast up to a mile out in front of the fire, creating new ignition points, including in some parts of the dense forest that haven’t burned since 1940 or before.
The blaze was 5 kilometers outside of South Lake Tahoe by Tuesday, Cal Fire Battalion Chief Henry Herrera told KGO-TV.
A day earlier, roughly 22,000 residents jammed the city’s main artery for hours after they were ordered to leave as the fire advanced. South Lake Tahoe city officials said only a handful of residents defied Monday’s evacuation order.
Pushed by strong winds, the Caldor Fire crossed two major highways and swept down slopes into the Tahoe Basin, where firefighters working in steep terrain were protecting remote cabins.
Thick smoke prevented air firefighting operations periodically last week. But since then, nearly two dozen helicopters and three air tankers dumped thousands of gallons of water and retardant on the fire, fire spokesman Dominic Polito said.
As flames moved toward the Heavenly ski resort on the California-Nevada border, officials turned on the mountain’s snow-making machines. Cal Fire Battalion Chief Jed Gaines told KPIX-TV that spraying the slopes with water was “increasing the humidity level, it’s getting everything wet” so that if the fire starts climbing “it’s able to slow it down.”
The Lake Tahoe area is usually a year-round recreational paradise offering beaches, water sports, hiking, ski resorts and golfing. South Lake Tahoe bustles with outdoor activities while just across the state border in Stateline, Nevada tourists can gamble at major casinos.
On Tuesday, only a few dozen tourists remained on the casino floor of the Montbleu Resort, Casino and Spa. The state board that controls gaming said that casino regulators were monitoring operations at the four largest gambling properties in the city.
Hotels are housing evacuees, fire crews and other emergency personnel. In all, Harrah’s, Harveys Lake Tahoe Casino, the Hard Rock and Montbleu Resort have more than 2,200 hotel rooms.
More than 15,000 firefighters were battling dozens of California blazes, with help from out of state crews. Climate change has made the West much warmer and drier in the past 30 years and will continue to make weather more extreme and wildfires more frequent and destructive, scientists say.
The threat of fire is so widespread that the U.S. Forest Service announced on Monday that all national forests in California would be closed until September 17.
Crews are battling the Dixie, the second-largest wildfire in state history at 1,281 square miles. The weeks-old fire was burning about 65 miles north of the Lake Tahoe-area blaze and prompting new evacuation orders and warnings this week.
The Caldor Fire has scorched nearly 312 square miles since breaking out August 14. It was 18% contained. More than 600 structures have been destroyed, and at least 33,000 more were threatened.