A raging wildfire approached Lake Tahoe just hours after the entire California resort city of South Lake Tahoe was forced to evacuate and residents just across the state border in Nevada were told to prepare to flee.
The popular summer vacation destination, which is regularly packed with tens of thousands of visitors, was deserted Monday as the enormous Caldor Fire spread to the north and south. Vehicles carrying motorcycles, camping gear, and boats were stuck in traffic, halted in hazy, brown air that smelled like a campfire. Police and other emergency vehicles went by.
“It's more out of control than I thought,” evacuee Glen Naasz said of the blaze, which had overrun state roads 50 and 89 by late Monday and burnt mountain cottages as it rushed down slopes into the Tahoe Basin.
With only a quarter tank of gas in his Ford Escape, Ken Breslin was caught in bumper-to-bumper traffic less than a mile (1.6 kilometers) from his house in the metropolis of 22,000 people. His son asked him to leave Sunday night, but he refused, confident that if an evacuation order was issued, it would be later in the week.
“Before, it was, ‘No worries ... it’s not going to crest. It’s not gonna come down the hill. There’s 3,500 firefighters, all those bulldozers, and all the air support,’” he said. “Until this morning, I didn’t think there was a chance it could come into this area. Now, it’s very real.”
The fire approached within a few miles of South Lake Tahoe, and residents in Douglas County, Nevada, just across the state line, were warned to evacuate.
The new evacuation orders, which were unprecedented in the city, came a day after residents several miles south of the lake were unexpectedly asked to flee as the fire flared nearby. Barton Memorial Hospital, South Lake Tahoe's largest medical center, proactively evacuated dozens of patients, and the El Dorado Sheriff's Office transported detainees to a neighboring jail.
“There is fire activity happening in California that we have never seen before. The critical thing for the public to know is evacuating early,” said Chief Thom Porter, director of the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection, or Cal Fire. “For the rest of you in California: Every acre can and will burn someday in this state.”