How the Caldor Fire Has Affected Tahoe So Far


SOUTH LAKE TAHOE — Sometimes you can’t help but reach for a cliché: South Lake Tahoe on Monday evening was the calm before the storm. After a frenzied mandatory evacuation that forced thousands to flee, the town went eerily still.

Everything was closed. Supermarket parking lots were empty; restaurants and motels were deserted. A man evacuating by bicycle, clothing piled high behind his seat, pedaled past. The roads felt wider without any traffic.

On the last days of August, Lake Tahoe would normally be thick with tourists paddleboarding, fishing, lounging, drinking and hiking.

“You’ll never see South Lake Tahoe like this again,” a resident told me before closing his car door and driving down an empty road toward Nevada.

The mandatory evacuation zone created by the fast-moving Caldor fire extended from Tahoma, Calif., on the western shore of the lake, to the Nevada border as of Monday evening.

And yet a 10-minute drive away there was urgency in the air as hundreds of firefighters fought to save Lake Tahoe. The Caldor fire, which ignited two weeks ago, crested a ridge on Monday and, propelled by strong winds, began descending into the well-populated Tahoe basin.

The fire was 15 percent contained on Monday, although that number hardly seemed to matter as the fire bore down on South Lake Tahoe.

Less than a dozen miles from the lakeshore, inmate fire crews bounded down mountainsides to put out spot fires. The switchbacks leading to Echo Summit, the 7,482-foot pass that leads to the Gold Rush towns along the American River, were covered with the yellow-jacketed men and women of Cal Fire. They squinted up at the mountain and the fire descending it.

I drove between these two places on Monday evening, between the quiet town and fiery hillside, and I had trouble processing the contrast.

It was almost as if South Lake Tahoe was taking a deep breath on Monday night, steeling itself for a battle with the fire that seemed determined to knock at its gates.

Until Monday, the Caldor fire had burned up and down remote Sierra hillsides, brushing past tiny Gold Rush hamlets. More than 480 homes have been destroyed in the fire’s path, many of them vacation cabins.

But what comes next for the Caldor fire is a terrifying prospect of an entirely different magnitude. With the fire now in the Tahoe Basin, Cal Fire estimates that 33,679 homes are threatened.

After a strangely beautiful sunset on Monday, a family of ducks floated past an empty white-sand beach in South Lake Tahoe. They seemed oblivious as the air became heavy with smoke — and a town awaited its fate.

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Thomas Fuller is the San Francisco bureau chief for The New York Times.


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