Lake Tahoe Fire Threat Grows as High Winds Fan California Flames

Dry winds gusting with the strength of a tropical storm are propelling a California wildfire Tuesday as firefighters desperately try to keep flames from reaching Lake Tahoe.

The Caldor Fire, which ripped through wildlands left crackling dry by drought, has sent thousands fleeing the town of South Lake Tahoe as crews move through the mountainous terrain trying to subdue the flames that have burned since August 14, consuming 187,000 acres.

Winds will be gusting up to 40 miles per hour through Wednesday, said Dawn Johnson, a National Weather Service meteorologist in Reno. Conditions have been listed as critical by the U.S. Storm Prediction Center, with fire warnings throughout the region. 

“There are no signs of meaningful precipitation,” Johnson said, that could “put down the kind of moisture we would need to be getting any kind of help from mother nature.” 

Caldor, which erupted Aug. 14 on the hills east of Sacramento, has injured five, destroyed 472 structures and burned 177,260 acres. It’s the second fire in state history to burn from one side of the Sierra Nevada mountain range to the other. The other, the Dixie Fire, has been burning for more than six weeks in the Sierras north of Sacramento. It has burned 777,741 acres across the northern Sierra since it started on July 14, according to Cal Fire.

On Monday, thousands fled from Caldor’s flames as smoke choked the air. Johnson said from her office in Reno she could see the thick smoke rising above Caldor to the south and the Dixie fire to the north. 

“Caldor is a real tough one for us,” Thom Porter, the fire chief for the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection, or Cal Fire, said Monday afternoon in a briefing. “We need to be really cognizant that there is fire activity happening in California that we have never seen before.” 

The fire was “held up” at a mountain ridge overlooking Lake Tahoe but was already starting spot fires into the basin, Porter said. 

Lake Tahoe, which straddles California and Nevada, typically attracts throngs of crowds over the summer for its beaches, hiking trails and casinos. It also became a popular destination for remote workers from the San Francisco Bay area during the pandemic, sending real estate prices soaring.

Lately, the region has been choked by smoke from the Caldor Fire, forcing tourists to flee and leaving beaches empty. Officials had warned earlier Monday that South Lake Tahoe, with a population of about 22,000, may need to evacuate due to critical fire weather. 

California and much of the West will remain hot and dry. The remnants of Hurricane Nora, which struck Mexico over the weekend, will cause heavy rain across Arizona and New Mexico, but that won’t come far enough north to blunt the fire threat.

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