The Photos That Show Everything Wrong With Our Current Moment

The Photos That Show Everything Wrong With Our Current Moment

The Caldor Fire is closing in on Lake Tahoe. Firefighters are doing everything they can to battle the blaze while... people just golf?

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A golfer wears a face mask as he practices his putting at the smoke shrouded Lake Tahoe Golf Course in South Lake Tahoe, California.
A golfer wears a face mask as he practices his putting at the smoke-shrouded Lake Tahoe Golf Course in South Lake Tahoe, California.
Photo: Rich Pedroncelli (AP)

The Caldor Fire is California’s latest megafire in a wildfire season from hell. It’s among a number of unchecked blazes, but this one hits slightly different because it’s encroaching on the Lake Tahoe basin.

The fire has continued to march eastward from its ignition point in the El Dorado Forest, engulfing more than 450 structures along the way. The fire front now sits roughly 13 miles (21 kilometers) from South Lake Tahoe, a tourist hot spot. As 2,531 firefighters battle the blaze, it appears to be business as smoke-choked usual in Tahoe.

Images show people in the resort town, casinos, and surrounding recreation spots acting out some semblance of normal life even as ash rains down and fires burn ever-closer. The above photo captures the surreal hell as a man plays golf in a mask to keep smoke or covid-19 (or both) at bay.

A green golf course in California is also, of course, a symbol of what’s wrong with the West right now. The region is gripped in a profound megadrought, fueled by the climate crisis, that has primed forests to burn. It’s also triggered water supply cuts to parts of the region. Reservoirs in the state have plunged to record lows, causing a dropoff in hydropower production and widespread fish dieoffs as waterways become too warm for salmon to navigate.

The putting green in the midst of apocalypse is only one of the profoundly unnerving images that define our times and the increasingly weird juxtapositions between everyday life and losing everything. Let’s take a tour through the corner of California’s hell.

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Some of the Worst Air Quality in the World

Some of the Worst Air Quality in the World

Smoke from the Caldor Fire, shrouds Fallen Leaf Lake near South Lake Tahoe, California.
Smoke from the Caldor Fire, shrouds Fallen Leaf Lake near South Lake Tahoe, California.
Photo: Rich Pedroncelli (AP)

Lake Tahoe’s economy depends on tourism. Nevada County, which includes the areas to the north and east of Lake Tahoe, raked in $343.7 million in 2017. Much of that is tied to outdoor recreation, and areas south of the lake similarly rely on skiers, mountain bikers, hikers, boaters, and more to keep the economy chugging.

But it’s hard to do those outdoor activities when the air outside is some of the most toxic in the world. On Wednesday morning, the air quality index in Tahoe City, located on the lake’s northeast shore, was a vile 406. Anything above 300 is considered hazardous, as defined by the Environmental Protection Agency. When the index reaches that level, it indicates “everyone may experience more serious health effects ... [and] should avoid all outdoor exertion.” The horrifying part is that isn’t even the worst air quality the region has seen over the past 24 hours. Federal data shows the air quality index maxed out at 827, nearly triple the hazardous threshold.

I’m suddenly very worried for golfing guy.

Campsites were also closed around the region, and even Heavenly ski area’s famed gondola that gives riders views across Nevada and California was shut down.

“We’ve never seen this much smoke here, ever,” Joe Stella, a manager at the Powder House ski, snowboard, and bike rental shop, told the San Francisco Chronicle.

When asked if he was surprised people weren’t breaking down the door to rent bikes, Stella wiped ash off a seat and told the Chronicle, “I wouldn’t recommend it. Think of all the stuff you’re breathing in.”

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Tourists Still Braved the Thick Smoke

Tourists Still Braved the Thick Smoke

Harrah's Lake Tahoe Casino is shrouded in smoke as face mask wearing pedestrians cross the street at the California-Nevada line.
Harrah’s Lake Tahoe Casino is shrouded in smoke as face mask-wearing pedestrians cross the street at the California-Nevada line.
Photo: Rich Pedroncelli (AP)

In 2020, a relatively down year given the whole deadly pandemic, South Lake Tahoe’s casinos brought in $182 million. They’re on track for a bounceback this year, though, with revenue up 56% compared to 2020.

Despite the risks of an encroaching fire, the AP report from South Lake Tahoe found at least some visitors were content to stay put and enjoy the city’s indoor offerings:

Sitting at a slot machine near a window looking out at cars driving through the haze on Lake Tahoe Boulevard, Ramona Trejo said she and her husband would stay for their 50th wedding anniversary, as planned.

Trejo, who uses supplemental oxygen due to respiratory problems, said her husband wanted to keep gambling.

“I would want to go now,” she said.

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Tahoe’s Famed Blue Color Is Marred

Tahoe’s Famed Blue Color Is Marred

Lake Tahoe's Emerald Bay is shrouded in smoke from the Caldor Fire.
Lake Tahoe’s iconic Emerald Bay is shrouded in smoke from the Caldor Fire.
Photo: Rich Pedroncelli (AP)

Lake Tahoe has some of the deepest blue water found anywhere on Earth. As a former Crater Lake park ranger, I find Oregon’s national park to be more impressive personally. But I don’t begrudge those who put Tahoe in the top spot for beauty.

The problem is the Caldor Fire has ruined all that. Tahoe’s famed blue hue relies on two factors: the lake’s clarity and sunlight. The lack of particulate matter in the lake allows water to reflect more blue light back to your eye, hence the shocking color. But the Caldor Fire has blocked out the sun with thick smoke. With no incoming light, the lake appears like a flat mud pit.

In an added climate twist, the lake has been losing its clarity in recent years. The snowpack has shrunk in the Sierras in recent years, increasing the lake’s temperature. That can put a cap on the lake that reduces deep water mixing that normally improves clarity, and it can foster algae growth as well.

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The Caldor Fire Has Done Damage Beyond the Lake

The Caldor Fire Has Done Damage Beyond the Lake

Chairs from the Grizzly Flats Community Church are still standing after the church was completely destroyed by the Caldor Fire.
Chairs from the Grizzly Flats Community Church are still standing after the church was completely destroyed by the Caldor Fire.
Photo: Allison Dinner (Getty Images)

The Lake Tahoe basin hasn’t seen a wildfire since 2007 when the Angora Fire destroyed 254 homes and led to thousands of evacuations. While firefighters have so far kept the Caldor Fire at bay, other communities haven’t been as lucky. Grizzly Flats, a community in the Sierras to the west of Lake Tahoe, was overrun by the fire late last week.

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Grizzly Flats Isn’t Alone

Grizzly Flats Isn’t Alone

Scorched cars rest on a property on Winding Way in Grizzly Flats, California, located less than 40 miles from South Lake Tahoe.
Scorched cars rest on a property on Winding Way in Grizzly Flats, California, located less than 40 miles from South Lake Tahoe.
Photo: Rich Pedroncelli (AP)

Grizzly Flats is one of a number of communities that have been devastated by wildfires in what has unfortunately become a seemingly annual occurrence. This year alone, the Dixie Fire charged through the historic town of Greenville, California, while the town of Lytton, British Columbia, was razed by flames just days after setting Canada’s all-time heat record.

Other places have met the same fate, including Paradise, California, in 2018, and neighborhoods in Santa Rosa and Redding, both also located in California. The damage points to the urgent need for adaptation so that millions living in the forest have a better shot at not losing everything when the flames inevitably come.

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The Juxtapositions Are Jarring

The Juxtapositions Are Jarring

A partially burnt playground still smolders at Walt Tyler Elementary School in Grizzly Flats, California.
A partially burnt playground still smolders at Walt Tyler Elementary School in Grizzly Flats, California.
Photo: Allison Dinner (Getty Images)

While recreation continues in South Lake Tahoe, the scenes to the east are a stark reminder of the risks fire poses. And it points to the strange contrast between people’s lives as they know them ending in places like Grizzly Flats and other small communities while life continues for those on vacation.

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Firefighters Are Working Around the Clock

Firefighters Are Working Around the Clock

Firefighters battle spot flare ups from the Caldor Fire in Riverton, California, less than 30 miles from South Lake Tahoe.
Firefighters battle spot flare-ups from the Caldor Fire in Riverton, California, less than 30 miles from South Lake Tahoe.
Photo: Allison Dinner (Getty Images)

Earlier this summer, the Forest Service declared a “national wildfire crisis.” In the month since, matters have only become worse. Firefighters are valiantly trying to hold the line on the Caldor Fire to protect communities around Lake Tahoe. But thousands of personnel are also deployed across the West to battle other large, destructive fires.

Federal data shows that there are more than 26,000 firefighters on the front lines of fires burning in states across the West as well as Minnesota, where uncontrolled fires are also raging. That means the incongruous scenes around Tahoe are far from the only ones playing out.

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