Firefighters reported progress in the battle to save communities on the south end of Lake Tahoe from an approaching forest fire after the stiff winds they had feared failed to materialize in the California-Nevada alpine region on Wednesday.
“We lucked out a little bit yesterday with some of the winds that didn’t come up quite as hard as we expected them to,” Tim Ernst, an operations section chief, told firefighters in a morning briefing.
An inversion layer, a cap of warm air over cooler air, then developed in the early morning hours “that put a real damper on things, slowed a lot of growth,” Ernst said. “So a lot of opportunity to make a lot of progress last night.”
The Caldor Fire has been burning toward Lake Tahoe from the southwest along California Highway 50, climbing over a high-elevation Sierra Nevada summit and descending into the Tahoe Basin.
“We were fortunate the fire did not make as strong a push into Tahoe as it did the previous day,” Ernst said.
Despite the positive developments, firefighters were warned that critical weather conditions remained and they would likely face gusty, swirling winds all day.
Thick smoke from the Caldor Fire has enveloped the city of South Lake Tahoe, which is all but deserted at a time when it would normally be swarming with tourists. On Monday, roughly 22,000 residents jammed the city’s main artery for hours after they were ordered to leave.
South Lake Tahoe city officials said only a handful of residents defied Monday’s evacuation order. But nearly everyone was monitoring the winds, which could determine whether flames bypass the city.
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 has crossed two major highways and swept down slopes into the Tahoe Basin, where firefighters working in steep terrain were protecting remote cabins. The fire has destroyed at least 700 homes and other structures, but officials say it’s too early for an accurate assessment of the destruction.
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