A day after an explosive wildfire forced the evacuation of a resort city at the southern tip of Lake Tahoe, firefighters braced for strong winds and of the 22,000 residents who were ordered to leave, some had decided to take their chances with flames creeping closer to the city limits.
On Tuesday, the city of South Lake Tahoe, usually bustling with summer tourists, was eerily empty, and the air thick and hazy with smoke from the Caldor Fire, one of two major fires burning in the same area. Fire officials said the flames were just three miles from the town.
Caldor, which has burned nearly 300 square miles since breaking out August 14 in California, has been moving closer to Nevada´s casino-dotted side of Lake Tahoe, prompting mandatory evacuations in small communities and on Monday, the city of South Lake Tahoe. It is just 18 percent contained.
The city sits on the southern edge of the normally idyllic, deep blue lake that for weeks has been choked by thick smoke and haze as the flames came closer.
When Monday’s evacuation order was issued, only about 20 of the city’s residents refused to evacuate, according to city spokeswoman Lindsey Baker, with most jamming the roads to flee.
The National Weather Service warned that weather conditions through Wednesday would include low humidity, dry fuel and wind gusts up to 30mph.
‘That’s definitely not going to help the firefighting efforts,’ said Courtney Coats, a spokeswoman for the US Forest Service.
‘With those winds, as it ran through the forest it created what’s called an active crown fire run, where the fire actually goes from treetop to treetop,’ said Stephen Vollmer, a fire behavior analyst for the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection.
He said embers were being cast up to a mile out in front of the fire, creating new ignition points.
Cal Fire Division Chief Erich Schwab said some homes burned, but it was too early to know how many. ‘The fire burned through there extremely fast, extremely hot. And we did the best that we could,’ he said Tuesday night.
The fire was 3 miles outside of South Lake Tahoe, California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection Battalion Chief Henry Herrera told KGO-TV.
South Lake Tahoe city officials said only a handful of residents defied Monday’s evacuation order. But nearly everyone worried Tuesday about what the fire would do next.
Tom O’Connell and his wife, Linda, awaited the fate of their home while anchored on their sailboat in Ventura Harbor. The two-bedroom they’ve owned for 40 years survived the Angora Fire that destroyed about 250 houses in 2007. They didn’t know if they’d be lucky again.
‘You worry about the things you can have some control over,’ O’Connell said. ‘We’ve no control over this.’
Pushed by strong winds, the Caldor Fire crossed two major highways and swept down slopes into the Tahoe Basin, where firefighters working in steep terrain were protecting remote cabins.
While most of his neighbors fled South Lake Tahoe as a major wildfire charged closer to town, Tod Johnson also stayed put.
The 66-year-old retiree swept up pine needles from the yard and roof of his home Tuesday after spending the night keeping an eye on reports of the advancing flames. The police knew he was there, but told him that when he leaves, he can’t come back until it’s safe.
‘I promised my kid I’d be out of here as soon as I saw any flames anywhere. And I’m trying to be here to help the firefighters,’ he said.
After seeing gusty winds in the forecast as the fire moved closer to his Lake Tahoe community, Johnson said he planned to leave Tuesday afternoon to join his girlfriend in Reno, once he had packed up a few precious items to take with him.
While more than 20,000 residents and likely thousands of tourists packed roads leading out of Lake Tahoe on Monday to flee the Caldor Fire closing in on the resort community, a handful of people decided to buck the mandatory evacuation orders and stay behind.
With many emergencies, from wildfires to hurricanes, most people choose to comply with orders to leave. However, there are almost always a few holdouts, and their reasons for staying vary.
Of the few who stayed behind, some said they wanted to stick it out, pack more belongings and guard their property a little longer.
Bill Roberts, said he had planned to leave South Lake Tahoe with everyone else but decided to postpone his trip because he was tired and his back hurt. He then delayed it again when his cat ran off.
‘Depending what the wind does, I might become a little more mildly concerned today. But I’m hoping at some point I just nab that cat and be out of here like a shot,’ he said.
Some locals stayed because they felt they had nowhere else to go, even though officials opened emergency shelters on both sides of the California-Nevada state line.
David Duet, a South Lake Tahoe resident who is homeless, camps in a meadow with half a dozen friends and said they ‘don’t really have anywhere else to go.’
He dismissed the idea of fleeing to nearby Carson City, saying his group didn’t know anyone in the Nevada capital, and declined a ride a stranger offered him Monday.
Duet said he and his friends are checking the internet and radio for updates on the fire and plan to ride bicycles out or catch a ride from someone if it gets really bad.
‘No one’s stupid enough to stay when the flames are right mounting around the outside of the meadow. So as long as the smoke isn’t so bad and the flames aren’t real close, we´re going to stick it out, you know?’ Duet said.
‘But if not, we’ll hightail it out. We’ll get out.’
The mandatory orders are typically enforced by local sheriff’s offices, though it’s unclear how often officials enforce the orders with threats of arrest.
In early August, as a wildfire burning further north in California approached the town of Westwood, the local sheriff’s office reported it arrested three people who stayed in defiance of an evacuation order, according to the Los Angeles Times.
The three people were taken to jail, cited and released.
Officials have not reported any arrests related to the evacuation orders near Lake Tahoe.
Russ Crupi decided to remain to defend his and his neighbors’ homes in the mobile home park that he and his wife maintain and manage for a living.
While his wife and children evacuated to Reno, he stayed and arranged sprinklers and tractors around park.
Law enforcement officers came by and took down his name and phone number as he explained he planned to stay and wait.
‘I’m worried about what’ll be here when people come back. People want to come back to their houses and that’s what I’m gonna try to do,’ he said.
Tonia Rhodes, who works as a server at a local casino, said she was anxious about her husband and upset about his decision to stay behind at their home in Meyers, south of Lake Tahoe, in defiance of an evacuation order.
Rhodes said her husband stayed at the home with four friends to try to defend it from encroaching blazes. They already had to rebuild their home once, after the 2007 Angora Fire tore through the neighborhood.
As she sat at the bar of the MontBleu casino resort in Stateline, waiting to see if it too might fall under an evacuation order, Rhodes said she didn’t think she could continue living with the anxiety of the inevitable next fire but couldn’t envision herself moving somewhere else.
‘I don’t want to do this anymore,’ she said. ‘I don’t even know what to do. Where would I go?’
But nearly everyone worried Tuesday about what the fire would do next.
‘It just kind of sucks waiting. I mean, I know it’s close down that way,’ said Crupi, gesturing south from his home in the Heavenly Valley Estates mobile home park, which he and his wife manage for a living.
He had arranged sprinklers and tractors around the neighborhood.
‘I’m worried about what’ll be here when people come back. People want to come back to their houses and that’s what I’m going to try to do,’ he said.
Pushed by strong winds, the Caldor Fire crossed two major highways and burned mountain cabins as it swept down slopes into the Tahoe Basin.
Thick smoke prevented air firefighting operations periodically last week. But since then, nearly two dozen helicopters and three air tankers dumped thousands of gallons of water and retardant on the fire, fire spokesman Dominic Polito said Tuesday.
The Lake Tahoe area is usually a year-round recreational paradise offering beaches, water sports, hiking, ski resorts and golfing.
South Lake Tahoe bustles with outdoor activities while just across the state border in Stateline, Nevada tourists can gamble at major casinos.
But on Tuesday, only a few dozen tourists remained on the casino floor of the Montbleu Resort, Casino and Spa.
The state board that controls gaming said that casino regulators were monitoring operations at the four largest gambling properties in the city.
Hotels are housing evacuees, fire crews and other emergency personnel. In all, Harrah’s, Harveys Lake Tahoe Casino, the Hard Rock and Montbleu Resort have more than 2,200 hotel rooms.
Nevada Governor Steve Sisolak urged residents to be prepared, saying there was no timeline for when evacuations might be ordered.
At a news conference in Carson City, he noted that ash was falling on him even though the fire was about 20 miles away.
‘I’m standing here and I’m getting all ash particulates on my jacket, even,’ the governor said.
‘This is serious, folks.’
Hours later, residents in parts of Douglas County under an evacuation warning were ordered to leave, although casinos were excluded.
At the Douglas County Community & Senior Center in Gardnerville, people had their temperature checked before entering a gymnasium of cots set up by the Red Cross.
Outside, evacuees who had stayed in tents sorted through ramen noodles and plastic bags of clothes and keepsakes.
South Lake Tahoe resident Lorie Major was at the grocery store when she got the alert on her phone.
‘I had to tell myself: ‘OK, Lorie: Get it together. It’s time to go’,’ she said.
She put on headphones, turned on the Grateful Dead’s ‘Fire on the Mountain’ and walked home to an empty apartment complex already vacated by neighbors.
She and her mini Australian shepherd, Koda, took a 20-mile taxi ride from her South Lake Tahoe apartment to a hotel in Minden, Nevada.
A firefighter injured while battling the Caldor Fire last weekend was expected to be hospitalized for a month after undergoing skin grafting surgery.
Richard Gerety III of Patterson, California suffered third-degree burns over 20 percent of his body, the Modesto Bee reported.
Despite the very active fire year, there have not been many injuries or deaths among firefighters or residents.
More than 15,000 firefighters were battling dozens of California blazes, with help from out of state crews.
Climate change has made the West much warmer and drier in the past 30 years and will continue to make weather more extreme and wildfires more frequent and destructive, scientists say.
The threat of fire is so widespread that the US Forest Service announced Monday that all national forests in California would be closed until September 17.
Crews are battling the Dixie, the second-largest wildfire in state history at 1,260 square miles. Only the Dixie fire, which has charred 771,000 acres (312,000 hectares) farther north in the Sierra, has engulfed more territory this year than Caldor.
The weeks-old fire was burning about 65 miles north of the Lake Tahoe-area blaze and prompting new evacuation orders and warnings this week.
More than 600 structures have been destroyed, and at least 33,000 more were threatened.
The last two wildfires that ripped through populated areas near Tahoe were the Angora Fire that destroyed more than 200 homes in 2007 and the Gondola Fire in 2002 that ignited near a chairlift at Heavenly Mountain Resort.
At the evacuation center in Gardnerville, Joe Gillespie said he, his girlfriend and her son left their home in Meyers south of South Lake Tahoe on Sunday, bringing clothes, picture frames and collectibles like Hot Wheels toys from the 1960s that Gillespie’s mother gave him.
Gillespie, a mechanic at Sierra-at-Tahoe Resort, said that unlike the northern shore of Lake Tahoe, which is dotted with mansions and second homes, the area currently under threat houses blue-collar workers who make their living at the casinos and ski resorts that make the area so popular.
The Sierra-at-Tahoe Resort is beloved for its unpretentious and comparatively affordable winter prices. It turns 75 this year, he said.
‘It sounds like we won’t be opening because of the fire,’ he said.
Both fires are among nearly two dozen raging across California and scores of others elsewhere in the West, during a summer fire season shaping up as one of the most destructive on record. The blazes have been stoked by extremely hot, dry conditions that experts say are symptomatic of climate change.
More than 6,800 wildfires large and small have blackened an estimated 1.7 million acres (689,000 hectares) within California alone this season, stretching available firefighting forces and equipment dangerously thin. Cal Fire and U.S. Forest Service officials have described ferocious fire behavior seen across the region as unprecedented.
The Forest Service has closed all 18 national forests in California to the public through mid-September, an extraordinary measure the agency has taken only once before – during last year’s catastrophic fire season. The shutdown officially begins at midnight on Tuesday.