‘We just don’t know what could happen’: Firefighters, community brace for ‘bad weather’ day (VIDEO, PHOTO GALLERY)
Special to the Sierra Sun
Update Wednesday 7:30 a.m.:
Watch a live briefing from Cal Fire here: https://youtu.be/xSQjaMypSmo
The fire grew to 204,390 acres overnight and is 20% containted.
Retired firefighter Joey Anderson, who served for 30 years, stayed at his home on Apache Avenue in the community of Meyers as the Caldor Fire pushed its way over the Echo Summit on Tuesday.
“It’s so hard leaving, we raised eight kids here,” Anderson said as garden sprinklers doused his home and the area around it.
A fire chief had come by to check on him, asking how he was holding up. After telling the chief that he was OK, Anderson burst into tears.
“Even in my life’s work, it’s different when it’s close to home,” Anderson said.
A group of Tahoe National Forest firefighters were wrapping up a firing operation behind his home as the flames from the Caldor Fire approached.
“I’m feeling pretty good with this line cut around the house,” Anderson said. “Of course, with the winds we just don’t know what could happen.”
Anderson owns a cabin on Echo Summit, where Monday’s fire activity was spotting and erratic, though he thinks it survived the fire so far.
“The hardest thing about leaving is knowing I can’t get back here,” Anderson said while the thought of evacuating still weighed heavy on his mind.
A BIRD’S EYE VIEW
Spot fires, seen igniting as far as one mile from the Caldor Fire’s edge, pushed past three major roadways — now firelines — on Monday. South Lake Tahoe residents’ fears were realized after the inferno breached the Tahoe Basin Monday morning, but destruction continued east.
First responders continued in shifts and tours to extinguish flames on either side of both Highway 88, near the American River’s Silver Fork, and Highway 89, close to the fire’s first major leap across Highway 50’s Echo Pass.
After announcing the updated acreage burned on Tuesday — 191,607, or 300 square miles — Cal Fire’s Operations Chief Tim Earnst said firefighters have gained some control along the Caldor Fire’s western boundary, around the inferno’s inception at Grizzly Flats.
Earnst said crews responsible for mopping up the northwestern area are diligently attending to spot fires as they crop up, given the ample fuel source of thick brush in Sly Park. Ice House Road was an area of particular concern going into Tuesday evening.
Earnst said Cal Fire changes the color of the fire’s boundary on its fire map from red to black as control is established.
The color change is a small victory, still worth celebrating, Earnst explained, given that first responders were up against winds blowing between 30 and 40 mph, with gusts up to 50 mph, Monday night.
“We had fire brands spotting a mile ahead of the fire,” Earnst said, referring to the heightened risk of floating embers in windy conditions. “That’s extremely challenging for firefighters to deal with.”
Fire Behavior Analyst Stephen Volmer said on Tuesday the long distance embers are traveling over the course of this fire are caused by a crown fire run, which burns forests’ canopies.
“(The flames) created an active crown fire run, when the fire actually goes from tree top to tree top, that is what’s propagating the spread of the fire right now — the long range ember cast,” Volmer said. “The rates of spread can go up to at least 200 feet per minute.”
Volmer said parts of the region have not burned since before 1940.
Earnst said the forefront of the battle remains the Echo Pass area, although Cal Fire is creating a backup plan. The uncontained line along the fire’s northern perimeter is well above Highway 50, Earnst said, and dozers are working to establish a fire line well above that.
“We’re looking at contingency lines well above the highway, just in case the wind carries embers further away,” Earnst said.
“The head of the fire has not made it to Kirkwood yet,” said a Cal Fire operations chief during a community meeting Tuesday evening. “We can’t control it, we don’t have tools out there, so we resort to herding the fire away from people and structures.”
The official said first responders need to be in a safe position to launch an offensive attack involving dozers and the establishment of fire lines. “Extreme fire behavior” prevented competent fire fighters from doing their job.
The Cal Fire officer said as flames flicker to the west of Kirkwood, first responders organized a defense group made up of 20 engines within the Vail ski resort.
In an earlier press conference, Cal Fire officials said contrary to concerns, firefighters are actually trying to direct Caldor’s uncontrollable flames toward the Tamarack Fire, where the fuel sources are getting used up.
Incident meteorologist Jim Dudley said Wednesday looks rough from a climate perspective.
With relative humidity values as low as 8%, even down toward the lake, Dudley said the excess of dry air and wind call for a red flag warning extension to 11 p.m. Wednesday.
Dudley said wind is forecast to lessen some Wednesday, but remain gusty.
“(Wednesday) will be another bad weather day, but it will be the last of those, I promise you,” Dudley said.
The National Weather Service in Reno, Salt Lake and Sacramento all agree, Dudley said, that the winds will lighten up considerably.
“That will make for a better situation here on the fire footprint,” Dudley said. “We’ve got to get through (Tuesday night) and (Wednesday).”
Earnst said Cal Fire’s priority is to keep the fire from moving southeast.
After 17 days of activity and 20,000 people evacuated, Caldor Fire is 16% controlled.
According to Caltrans’ wesbite, Highway 50 remains closed from Pollock Pines to a half-mile west of South Lake Tahoe at Airport Road. Highway 88 is closed from Peddler Hill in Amador County to the north junction of Highway 89 in Alpine County.
Rebecca O’Neil is a staff writer with The Union, a sister publication to the Sierra Sun. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
Multimedia Reporter Elias Funez contributed to this report
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