‘This is just a monster’: Caldor Fire approaches South Lake Tahoe
“There is fire in the basin,” Cal Fire Chief Thom Porter said.
Special to the Sierra Sun
After burning 191,607 acres in two weeks, the Caldor Fire breached Echo Pass along the Highway 50 corridor in South Lake Tahoe Monday afternoon.
Two counties over, Grass Valley’s air quality continues to cycle between “hazardous” to “dangerous for sensitive groups” between low-pressure mornings and high-pressure afternoons. The region’s skies first filled with smog this fire season because of the Dixie Fire, which began 90 miles to the north almost 50 days ago.
Aside from regular precautions that should be issued in diminished air quality — increased hydration and reduced outdoor activity — Cal Fire Public Information Officer Mary Eldridge said Nevada and Placer county residents ought to be mindful of some 20,000 evacuees hitting the road this week from El Dorado County. The entirety of South Lake Tahoe is under evacuation orders because of the Caldor Fire, according to a Cal Fire update provided Monday morning.
“People are leaving (around Highway) 50,” Eldridge said. “They are either going to Reno or they are going to come down and around. Those of us in Nevada County need to be prepared for more people as well as a lot of fire resources coming from above and below.”
Eldridge said she suspects Highway 49 will be impacted by heavy traffic as well.
Cal Fire Chief Thom Porter described the Caldor Fire as a “real tough one” after reporting the flames’ 20,000-acre advance Sunday night.
“It’s burning heavy timber on the Highway 50 corridor between South Lake and Sacramento on difficult terrain and conditions to fight fire,” Porter said.
As of Tuesday morning, the Caldor Fire was 16% contained.
The Caldor and Dixie fires are the only two fires recorded in California history to span the Sierra from east to west.
“We haven’t had fires burn from one side of the Sierra to the other,” Thom Porter, head of Cal Fire, said in a Monday afternoon update from the Governor’s Office of Emergency Services. “We did with Dixie, and now we do with the Caldor — we need to be cognizant that there is fire activity happening (here) that we have never seen before.”
Leelee Gilbert and her son Tadi Wright escaped the basin at about 1:30 a.m. Monday and set up camp at the shelter in Gardnerville.
“We used to live on Black Bart, I guess we’ll find out pretty soon if we still do,” Gilbert said.
The family brought their three dogs and cat, and a newborn baby, and have set up multiple tents in the dirt area just off the shelter’s parking lot.
“We’re not going to make our pets go into a shelter,” Gilbert said. “They are already nervous and there’s no way we can do that to them.”
Gilbert has lived in South Lake Tahoe since 1991 and has been through her share of fires, including the Angora Fire in 2007, but she says the Caldor Fire is different.
“This is just a monster,” she said. “The Angora Fire was local and it was scary because our neighbors’ homes were getting annihilated, but you always had this feeling they were going to get it. You knew they had a grip. But this fire, it’s a mega fire, once they’re at 100,000 acres, I don’t know what they can do.”
The shelter is filling up and the volunteers there are scrambling. One official said they are feeling overwhelmed and understaffed.
“It’s chaos here, we don’t have enough people to help with everybody’s needs,” the official said.
THE FIRE FACTOR
Sam Goodspeed, Nevada City/Grass Valley Fire Department chief, said the steep topography and density of South Lake Tahoe’s wooded areas are two of a few key differences between the Caldor Fire and the recent River and Bennett fires in Nevada County.
“The steeper it is, the faster it will carry the fire,” Goodspeed said. “Fire likes to rise (and Tahoe’s) got these steep hillsides, which means rapid fire growth and long-distance spotting.”
Porter and Eldridge said spot fires can start in any direction, given fire’s propensity to burn upward, floating embers and rolling debris.
“It’s the Sierra Nevada — you have high peaks and deep gorges,” Eldridge said. “You have a tree, it’s burning for a week now, it breaks and rolls down, that can start many spot fires rolling down the hill. We call this ‘difficult terrain.’”
Porter said he is proud of his team’s progress on the fire’s western front, where part of Grizzly Flat burned, but said the eastern edge is not easy to navigate.
“The east side of the fire has difficult road conditions and is burning heavy timber,” Porter said. “We’ve been making headway — at times.”
Goodspeed said along with pre-existing accessibility issues, first responders must deal with weather via wind speed and direction, as well as fuel source flammability.
“Right now they’re anticipating gusting winds which, again, is going to propel the fire forward,” Goodspeed said.
Goodspeed said first responders can take a more assertive stand in the more densely populated areas because there is more access.
The flip side of fighting fire closer to the roadside is the flammability of Tahoe cabins.
“It’s quite a bit older construction,“ Goodspeed said. ”It’s cedar shake roofs and shingles, so once you get these older cabins involved that becomes your significant fuel source.“
Porter said a phenomena known as atmospheric inversion, wherein the temperature increases with altitude instead of decreasing, “put a lid on fire activity.” The benefits are temporary, Porter said, so each time the air clears it looks like a plume of steam shot out from a kettle.
“It sucks in oxygen from all directions, and puts spot fires in all directions,” Porter said.
Goodspeed said he is grateful for the lookout points manned at various locations throughout Nevada County. Aside from being in a physical position to identify smoke early on, Goodspeed said the assortment of districts and agencies in the area fortify the collective response to fires as they crop up.
Goodspeed said the federal and state governments are making the Caldor Fire a priority because of Tahoe’s beauty, population and wealth.
According to Eldridge, the National Guard deployed ground crews to provide fuel breaks to firefighters and prevent the loss of life in the Tahoe area.
“I think (Tahoe is) one of the crown jewels of the state of California, as far as recreation and the beauty of the lake,” Goodspeed said. “There are populous areas around the lake, a lot of high dollar value and potential loss.”
RED FLAG FORECAST
The National Weather Service extended its red flag warning, affecting Grass Valley, Nevada City and Colfax, until 11 p.m. Tuesday. The warning is a full 24 hours longer at higher elevations near White Cloud Campground, Truckee and Emigrant Camp.
Meteorologist Eric Kurth said Tuesday’s winds along the ridge are expected to peak between 30 and 35 miles per hour. Wednesday’s breeze will top out between 20 and 25 miles per hour.
“The gusts, coupled with low humidity, cause enough concern to keep the red flag in the area,” Kurth said. “We’re expecting critical fire weather conditions. A combination of lower humidity and dry fuels could contribute extreme fire behavior.”
Kurth said some moisture from the coastline may make it to Lake Tahoe by Thursday, which will help fine fuels like grass or pine needles retain some moisture.
“We’re starting to get better (humidity) recovery in the (Central) Valley here from some marine influence,” Kurth explained. “It’s gonna take some time for that moisture to get up into that area.”
Rebecca O’Neil is a staff writer with The Union, a sister publication to the Sierra Sun. She can be reached at email@example.com
The Tahoe Daily Tribune contributed to this report
Tuesday: 86/63 degrees
Wednesday: 81/57 degrees
Thursday: 81/55 degrees
Tuesday: 79/48 degrees
Wednesday: 76/43 degrees
Thursday: 74/40 degrees
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