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Regional Interests

‘It’s All About the Weather’: Tahoe Basin Residents Brace for Fast Approaching Caldor Fire

After almost two weeks of being mostly stuck at home because of smoke-filled skies, South Lake Tahoe Mayor Pro Tem Devin Middlebrook is a little tired of doom scrolling about the Caldor Fire, which continues to creep toward the Tahoe basin from the other side of Echo Summit along Highway 50.

“I’ve been refreshing the Twitter feed way too often,” he admitted. “It’s just not a fun time to be in Tahoe when you go to the beach and you can’t see 10 feet out into the lake.”But the reality of wildfires worsening because of droughts, climate change and a century of aggressive fire suppression is something Middlebrook is well aware of.

“We’re seeing climate really compounding what would normally be devastating fires and really turning them into those megafires — especially one that started 25, 30 miles away from Tahoe wouldn’t have been a threat to the region,” he said.

Under Middlebrook’s lead, the city last October adopted its first Climate Action Plan, with the goal of transitioning to 100% renewable energy by 2032.

“We’ve already seen the impacts of climate change through fires, less snow, more rain, increased water temperature and algae growing in the lake,” he said. “It’s something that we really do need to address through reducing the emissions that we’re creating locally, but also [by] being prepared for potential impacts like wildfire.”

Winds and extremely dry conditions on Friday fueled the spread of the Caldor Fire to the northeast, with flames continuing to move closer to the mountains ringing the Lake Tahoe basin. Flying embers caused spot fires to continue igniting as the fire moved north and east along the Highway 50 corridor near Twin Bridges. (Courtesy Cal Fire via Twitter)

The Caldor Fire, burning roughly 14 miles southwest of South Lake Tahoe, prompted evacuation warnings near the Tahoe basin on Thursday, from the intersection of Highways 50 and 89 west to Echo Summit and south to the Amador-El Dorado County line. As of Friday afternoon, warnings had not yet been issued for South Lake Tahoe and neighboring Meyers, although the stretch of Highway 50 from Pollack Pines to Meyers remained completely shut down.

Fire crews are paying close attention to the eastward movement toward Lake Tahoe, where there is a much denser concentration of homes and businesses.

The blaze, which started on Aug. 14, near the Sierra foothills town of Grizzly Flats, had grown to nearly 144,000 acres as of Friday morning, and was just 12% contained. The fire grew overnight Thursday because of relatively low humidity, said National Weather Service meteorologist Jim Dudley.

“It’s very, very, very dry out there today,” Dudley said Friday. “There’s smoke everywhere. … It’s going to take a while for the inversions to break off with this amount of smoke.”

The fire is being fueled by erratic winds, especially in deep mountain drainages, like the Highway 50 corridor, and some observers fear the wind will pick up embers and carrying them into areas not burning, expanding the reach of the flames.

Those embers are what worry Susie Kocher, a Tahoe region fire adviser with UC Agricultural and Natural Resources. She says homes can easily burn if hit by embers if they don’t have covered vents or if they’re surrounded by dry brush.

“If there are huge gaps and the embers just flow right in, how does a fire engine out front of a house actually help?” she said.

In addition to observing the Caldor Fire for her job, Kocher is also preparing to evacuate; she lives in Meyers at the bottom of Echo Pass. The community of Christmas Valley, where evacuation warnings are now in place, is just next door.

“I think if it gets over the summit, it could move fairly quickly,” she said. “It’s all about the weather.”

For the better part of the past two weeks, she and her family have been making tough decisions about what to take with them if evacuation orders do come. In the meantime, she is taking every precaution for her home, including covering vents, raking any excess needles around her house and clearing out sheds. She also packed up family heirlooms, like her wedding dress and her mother’s silverware.

“It occurred to me a year or so ago that if my house burned down, that’s what I would miss,” she said.

Kocher has for years analyzed the fire readiness of neighborhoods in places like South Lake Tahoe. But with the rapid pace of climate change, and the number of fires in the region that have already burned this year, she wonders if any community is actually fire ready. She thought some of the homes in hard-hit communities like Greenville — which was leveled by the Dixie Fire — or Grizzly Flats would have survived. But they didn’t.

“I’m feeling less faith that our actions have a lot of outcomes,” she said. “I hope this adds to our sense of urgency — this terrible fire season on top of the last terrible fire season, on top of two, almost as terrible fire seasons before.”

She says climate change is only part of why forests are burning so much more frequently; the rest is due largely to inadequate forest management and not better utilizing tools like prescribed burns and forest thinning.

“If this fire season and last fire season teaches us anything, it’s that we need to get on this forest management issue over the winter and spring,” she said. “We need to do 10 times as much this winter as we’ve been doing.”

As the Caldor Fire continues to burn, the air quality this week remained at hazardous levels in the Tahoe basin. (Courtesy of Corey Rich)

For Pam and Gene Matteucci, this idea of taking care of the forest hits close to home. They’ve lived in South Lake Tahoe for decades. On Friday, their car was packed car with their most prized belongings.

“We’ve taken things off the wall, mostly flammable things,” Gene said. “We’ve got ladders on the back porch. So, if the firemen come by, they can climb up to our back porch and then on the roof.”

This isn’t the first time a fire has come close to their home. In 2007, the Angora Fire burned right up to their backyard. But now they’ve had two weeks to prepare. Last time, they had just about an hour.

“We heard the great big popping of the propane tanks, saw the tree tops crowning and all the dark smoke,” he said, recalling that blaze. “It was really scary. So we don’t want to go through that again.”

For now, they’re sticking around until evacuation orders come.

But many others in the Tahoe basin aren’t waiting.

Photographer Corey Rich moved up to South Lake Tahoe two decades ago, from Sacramento. When the smoke here turned the air toxic last week, he and his family fled to Colorado, where they’re now staying with friends.

“I’ve known for 20 years that I’m living in a forest and one of the threats when you live in the forest is a forest fire,” said Rich, who plans to fly back to his home in South Lake this weekend to pack up his mountain bikes and other personal belongings.

“I have to believe in my heart that even if a wildfire sweeps through South Lake … I’m still going to love that place,” he said. “I’m realistic that our town might change quite a bit in the next week or two.”

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