Caldor fire exceeds 200,000 acres as it approaches Nevada
Helicopters thudded over South Lake Tahoe on Wednesday as columns of thick, black smoke snaked skyward from distant ridges. Fire crews – more than 18 days after fighting the raging Caldor blaze began – dug handlines, bulldozed, and bombarded the blaze with water and a retarder in a total effort to keep the flames at bay.
Everything seemed, at least in part, to be working.
The blaze roared over more than 200,000 acres on Wednesday, but mostly stayed away from the popular resort town. Firefighters were also successful in protecting many homes in Christmas Valley and Meyers, both located in the Tahoe Basin.
Authorities confirmed damage to the outskirts of the Sierra-at-Tahoe ski resort on Wednesday evening, said Deputy Chief Jamie Moore, a Los Angeles firefighter working as part of the state’s interagency effort on the Caldor fire.
“They lost a few exterior buildings, but the main pavilion was not damaged,” Moore said.
A cost estimate was not available, he said.
Still, while officials expressed some optimism, a new possibility loomed as the head of the blaze moved east toward the Nevada state border.
As of Wednesday evening, the blaze was burning about 5 miles from the state border, Moore said.
“I would be surprised if it doesn’t reach Nevada in the next few days,” said Craig Clements, professor of meteorology and director of the Wildfire Interdisciplinary Research Center at San Jose State University.
Clements’ team used dynamic computer modeling to predict the likely behavior of the fire. The model watch the blaze reaching Nevada late Wednesday night or early Thursday morning, he said.
“It’s a difficult fire to predict,” Clements said, noting that it burns over complex terrain made up of very dry vegetation. “But our model shows that it will continue to go east.”
At noon on Wednesday, firefighters were facing strong winds and dry conditions and battling airborne embers and rapid thrusts, with red flag warnings indicating the potential for wind gusts as strong as 30 mph until 11 p.m.
Strong winds are a major concern for firefighters as they can send embers into the air and start point fires for up to a mile and a half, officials said.
Fire behavior analyst Steven Volmer said that given the hot and dry conditions in the area, the likelihood of a stray embers starting a new fire was “extremely high” – over 90%. And when fires do start, they can spread at a speed of 200 feet per minute between treetops and about 100 feet per minute on the ground, he said.
Beyond the wind, firefighters also faced another challenge, officials said: fatigue. As of Wednesday night, the blaze had ravaged 207,931 acres and was only 23% contained.
“Whether you’ve been here for the duration of this incident, whether you’ve been from another fire, or have covered in your home, fatigue can and will set in,” a safety officer told firefighters. “We all know we still have a long way to go. “
The eastern flank of the blaze was of concern, officials said.
“This is where we focus a lot,” Cal Fire spokesman Beale said Monday. “All of our focus on resources on this side is divided into protecting the structure and trying to avoid this fire away from endangered valuables and communities down here.”
On Monday, crews laid bulldozer lines on the east side of Pioneer Trail and the west side of Truckee Drive in an effort to keep the flames out of South Lake Tahoe. Crews were also removing brush and debris from the side of the freeways in case they should trigger a backfire, he said.
Officials were considering opportunities to build a “catcher’s glove” beyond immediate fire lines and into Nevada to stop the fire from advancing east, he said.
At Heavenly Ski Resort near the state border, containment lines made with bulldozers appeared to be holding the fire at bay. However, on the north side of the wildfires, the flames remained active near the scenic Desolation Wilderness and Wrights Lake. To the south, plumes of smoke rose behind Kirkwood Mountain Ski Resort as authorities used snow spreaders to wet the area. Fire trucks were parked throughout the community, ready to defend dozens of homes and resort properties.
Monday said the fire had not yet entered Kirkwood proper, but that “we had another ordeal today over there, the winds are really strong”.
US Forest Service spokesperson Dana Walsh said Kirkwood remained one of the top priorities for the day. Several planes and fire crews worked to establish defensive lines as staff cleared fallen trees along Route 88.
The fire’s original ignition point – near Grizzly Flats to the west – was still causing problems, although authorities were hoping to lift some of the evacuation orders in that area within the next 48 hours. Portions of North Camino and Pollock Pines were downgraded to an evacuation warning Wednesday afternoon.
Calling it the state “No. Priority 1, ”Governor Gavin Newsom said, said significant resources were devoted to fighting the fire, including firefighting aircraft and National Guard troops. Newsom also called for a presidential declaration of emergency on Wednesday for direct federal assistance to bolster emergency response and recovery efforts.
“California stands in solidarity with the communities of Lake Tahoe and all residents affected by the Caldor fire,” Newsom said. “We are using all available tools to protect life and property and urge residents to stay safe and pay attention to the instructions of local authorities in the midst of these dangerous fire weather conditions.”
President Biden on Wednesday evening approved Newsom’s request for an emergency declaration to mobilize federal resources to fight the Caldor fire.
Nevada Governor Steve Sisolak this week declared a state of emergency “in anticipation of the fire from California to the state of Nevada in the coming days.”
More than 4,200 people have been assigned to fight the blaze, officials said, including 44 from the Los Angeles Fire Department.
Evacuation orders have been issued across much of the region, including South Lake Tahoe and Douglas County, Nevada. New evacuation warnings for parts of Alpine County were issued Wednesday afternoon.
Defending structures remained the top priority for firefighters in evacuated areas, officials said. Nearly 35,000 structures are threatened by the fire.
Smoke from the fire has also contributed to deteriorating air quality in the area, with the El Dorado County Air Quality Management District warn residents that the air quality forecast is “very unhealthy” until at least Friday.
But crews could benefit from a break on Thursday as red flag conditions are expected to ease, according to meteorologist Jim Dudley. However, dry conditions and low humidity will remain persistent problems throughout the region.
These factors helped the Caldor Blaze burn across the Sierra to the other – a feat matched only by the Dixie Blaze, which has now burned more than 844,000 acres in the northern California. Clements, director of the Center for Interdisciplinary Forest Fire Research, said unprecedented behavior was “yet another signal of climate change.”
While no model or map can say with absolute certainty what the Caldor fire will do in the hours or days to come, Clements noted that ultimately, “these fires are burning in the direction of the wind. “.
“Usually in the Sierra we have southwest winds in the afternoon,” he said. “That’s why this fire is so dangerous – because it’s the direction of South Lake Tahoe.”
As of Wednesday twilight, fires burned all along US Highway 50 between South Lake Tahoe and Kyburz, with hundreds of trees still ablaze. Fire crews cleaned up spot fires and continued to tackle undergrowth and other fuels. The felling of the burnt trees had already started.
But on the country roads along the Pioneer Trail and the town of Meyers, most of the houses remained standing, covered in gray black ash but unharmed.