STATELINE, Nevada (CBS SF) — Evacuation warnings were expanded in Alpine County Wednesday as the huge Caldor Fire advanced, pushed by strengthening afternoon winds tossing ember clouds well ahead of the control lines and igniting spot fires.
Hundreds of firefighters were battling the wildfire near the Kirkwood ski resort, on the eastern edge approaching the Heavenly Valley ski resort and the Nevada state line, and near Wrights Lake off Highway 50.
Cal Fire said Wednesday afternoon evacuation warnings were expanded in Alpine County to include:
- The area from Picketts Junction south on Highway 88 to Forestdale Road.
- Northeast to Hawkins Peak to the Highway 88/Highway 89 junction at Woodfords.
- East on Highway 88 to the CA/NV state line.
- NW along the Alpine County line to Fay-Luther Canyon.
Evacuation orders remained in effect for:
- The area from Picketts Junction, north on Highway 89 to the Alpine/El Dorado county line.
- NE along the Alpine/El Dorado county line to the CA/NV state line.
- SE along the Alpine County line to Fay-Luther Canyon.
- SW along Fay- Luther Canyon to Horse Thief Canyon to Picketts Junct.
As of Wednesday afternoon, the Caldor Fire had burned 204,390 acres and was 20% contained. The wildfire burning in Amador and El Dorado counties began August 14 east of Omo Ranch and souuth of the community of Grizzly Flats
“Currently, the fire has not entered the Kirkwood proper,” said U.S. Forest Service Operation Chief Beale Monday said in a Wednesday afternoon briefing. “The winds are real squirrelly. We are still getting continuous spot fires that are threatening the value at risk (homes) down in Kirkwood. We have a lot of people and resources in place to try to prevent any damage into Kirkwood itself.”
Residents in Douglas County surrounding the Kingsbury Grade in neighboring Nevada were forced to flee their homes Tuesday evening and the giant Heavenly Valley snowmaking machines were engaged, sending thousands of gallons of water raining down on the resort to dampen grounds and elevate humidity levels as the flames approached.
A small army of firefighters were gathered at the resort to battle the advancing flames and dozer lines were being edged into the mountainous terrain to present an additional barrier. Overhead, Air Force planes equipped with infrared cameras were locating hot spots through the heavy ground smoke and directing the firefight.
“We want to get the (defensive) plan in place and everything built in place so we can hold it here,” said Cal Fire’s Jed Gaines.
By sunrise Wednesday, the blaze had grown to 204,390 acres. With the Dixie Fire in Plumas and Lassen counties topping 800,000 acres, the two biggest of the dozen or so wildfires burning in the state have topped 1 million acres burned combined.
There was 20% containment but that was mostly along the western edge of the fire near Sly Park and Pollock Pines — a nearly two-hour drive from South Lake Tahoe — where the massive blaze ignited on Aug. 14. The nearby community of Grizzly Flats was devastated as hundreds of homes were destroyed.
— Anne Makovec (@AnneKPIX) September 1, 2021
While winds were relatively calm overnight as a smoke inversion layer moved in around midnight, gusts had increased to 20-30 mph just before daybreak. A Red Flag Fire Warning for gusty winds and bone-dry humidity was not set to expire until 11 p.m. Wednesday.
“The wind regime you saw yesterday will continue today,” Cal Fire meteorologist Jim Dudley told crews at the Wednesday morning briefing. “Where it was gusty on the ridges, where you saw the swirling, erratic wind conditions, you are going to see that again today. The speeds may be a little less than yesterday, but I don’t want to dismiss the fact were are going to have the swirling, gusty winds.”
As the winds picked up, spot fires become a challenge sending clouds of embers soaring over control efforts. The embercast helped the blaze leap over Christmas Valley and continue its march northeast.
“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 tree-top to tree-top,” said Cal Fire’s Steven Volmer, the fire behavior analyst. “When it does that, the embercast that it throws out is going over a mile in distance. So that’s what propagating the spread of the fire right now.”
“Those embers are landing in the very old, very dense fuels that are out there in the fire environment,” he continued. “The area has not seen fire activity since before 1940 so we are seeing a lot of dense woodland.”
On Tuesday, embers also ignited a spot fire beyond the control lines along Highway 50 near Echo Summit.
“The control line we had along Wrights Lake Road tying it into the Desolation Wilderness, the fire spotted outside that control line,” said Cal Fire Operation Chief Erich Schwab at the Tuesday night briefing. “It’s making pretty substantial runs direct to the east toward Wrights Lake.”
While much of the media attention is on the battle in the South Lake Tahoe area, the blaze continued to extract a destructive toll along Highway 50. Islands of unburned vegetation continued to ignite and char nearby cabins.
“I just rode through there,” Schwab said. “There’s a lot of pockets of unburned islands that are burning out that are still closing in on cabins that are in there, so we are in there actively firefighting and defending structures,” he said. “I did see some damage to structures. The fire burned through there extremely fast, extremely hot. We did the best that we could.”
There was an additional challenge for firefighters Tuesday — COVID. Cal Fire said they had the equivalent of a strike team in firefighters pulled from the lines, suffering from COVID infections.
At Stateline along the border between Nevada and South Lake Tahoe, time is running out for some evacuees staying at area hotels as the local firefight stretches on with no end in sight.
Janet Stout has been staying at the Hard Rock Casino since being evacuated from her home. But she only booked three nights and can’t extend her stay.
With evacuation orders for her and 50,000 other residents still in effect for the Caldor Fire, she luckily has a friend she can stay with. But she knows many of her neighbors do not.
“It’s just a feeling I’ve never had before,” sighed Stout. “I can’t feel their pain, but I’m so empathetic towards them. I’m going to call my other friend and see if I can bring a couple of people with me.”
The firefighters battling to save homes in the Tahoe Basin are staying at the casino hotels, which aren’t taking any more new reservations so they can provide rooms for the people trying to save the town.
“They’re exhausted when they get there, but they are…,” Stout trailed off, at a loss for words. “Thank you!”
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