The Caldor Fire Has Taken an Ominous Turn Toward Lake Tahoe

Firefighters are struggling to contain a fire that has already destroyed or damaged 650 structures as it nears a major tourist destination.

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In this long exposure photograph, embers fly off a burning tree during the Caldor fire in Twin Bridges, California on August 29, 2021.
Photo: Josh Edelson (Getty Images)

While the Gulf South is underwater, the West is ablaze in a serious way. On Sunday, fire officials put residents of the city of South Lake Tahoe under an evacuation warning due to the spread of the Caldor Fire. But by Monday, those warnings had been upgraded to mandatory orders as a day of dangerous fire weather begins.

The fire has been roaring for two weeks as thousands of firefighters have attempted to stop it from spreading east toward the resort town. But conditions have deteriorated, putting residents in an increasingly risky position. On Sunday, Jeff Marsoleis, forest supervisor for El Dorado National Forest, told reporters that he thought crews had it under control a few days ago. But the fire has acted in ways that are “more aggressive than anticipated.”

“Today’s been a rough day, and there’s no bones about it,” he said.

At 10 a.m. local time, Cal Fire is ordered residents in Tahoe Keys, Tahoe Island, Al Tahoe, Sierra Tract, and Bijou areas of South Lake Tahoe to evacuate. By 11 a.m., those orders were expanded to basically the entirety of the town of 22,000. Sheriffs and other officials are going door-to-door to get residents on the road and out of town to safety east of the advancing fire.

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The Caldor Fire has injured five people and destroyed more than 650 homes and other structures, many in the small communities that dot the western slope of the Sierras. It is now moving steadily toward Lake Tahoe, which straddles California and Nevada. All residents on California’s side of the Lake Tahoe Basin have now been warned to evacuate.

Late Sunday night, hospital staff evacuated all patients from South Lake Tahoe’s Barton Memorial Hospital. “Patients will be transferred to regional partner facilities & patients’ families will be notified,” the hospital tweeted. “Barton’s Emergency Department remains open for emergent health needs only.”

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The 3,500 firefighters working to battle the flames have faced treacherous conditions. Some parts of the terrain are so uneven that workers have had to lug fire hoses by hand from Route 50 to put out spot fires sparked by high winds. The challenges have been so great that the National Interagency Fire Center has called in the army for backup, and 200 soldiers will be deployed to assist with firefighting operations starting Monday.

Smoke from the fires is also choking the region. Air quality is deteriorating, with some locations seeing extremely hazardous levels of pollution. The National Weather Service said in a tweet on Sunday that smoke from the wildfires has created poor air quality across the region, raising the risk of smoke-related illnesses. Monitoring stations have recorded air quality values above 600 at times over the past week, well above the hazardous threshold of 300. Anything above that level is classified by the Environmental Protection Agency as a “health warning of emergency conditions.”

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The worst may not be over yet. From Monday night through Tuesday, Northern California will face critical red flag fire conditions that indicate the fire could rapidly spread. Humidity could bottom out in the single digits while winds will gust up to 35 mph (56 kph). That, coupled with temperatures that rise into the 80s and 90s, will cause the fire to flare up and make firefighters’ tasks that much harder.

The Caldor Fire is one of more than a dozen large ones blazing across California. Another fire, the Chapparal Fire in the La Cresta area, southeast of Los Angeles, was so severe on Sunday that it whipped up a fire swirl and led to evacuations in the vicinity. Almost 90 large fires are burning across the western U.S. and dozens more in Canada.

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The devastating fire season has been exacerbated by extreme heat and drought conditions fueled by the climate crisis. According to the Drought Monitor’s latest report, nearly 95% of the West is in some form of drought. California is among the hardest hit states, with nearly half of the Golden State in “exceptional” drought conditions—the most severe category.

The inferno is a horrific illustration of the already-present effects of the climate crisis, and a warning that we must both invest in adaptation measures and also kick planet-warming fossil fuels to the curb at once. California, though often hailed as a leader of U.S. climate action, has approved thousands of new oil and gas drilling permits in recent years. To get a handle on the crisis at hand, that won’t work. The state and the world must make big changes to avoid even worse fires transpiring in the future.

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Update, 8/30/21, 2:57 p.m.: This post has been updated with information that evacuation warnings have been turned into orders for some residents of South Lake Tahoe.