Evacuees anxiously follow course of California fire near Lake Tahoe

by Reuters
Wednesday, 1 September 2021 12:53 GMT

(Corrects paragraph 11 to say Joan was using an iPad)

By Sharon Bernstein

CARSON CITY, Nevada, Sept. 1 (Reuters) - Red Cross officials who have turned a Carson City recreation center into a shelter have tried to make evacuees from the wildfire raging near Lake Tahoe as comfortable as possible.

Cots are placed at COVID-safe distances from each other on the gym floor, each topped with a soft white blanket. Urns of coffee wait at the entrance.

But it is information that is most craved by those staying at the rec center in western Nevada and others who have found their own shelter after some 50,000 people were given evacuation orders because of the Caldor fire across the state line in California.

Forest Service staff stood at the door of the rec center, pointing to a poster-sized map on an easel as they answered questions from evacuees about where the fire was in relation to people's homes.

Cal Fire spokesman Henry Herrera told Reuters by phone Tuesday that two large spot fires crept to within 3 miles of the southern boundary of South Lake Tahoe, Calif., a town of some 22,000 about 30 miles southwest of Carson City.

Officials said the fire was quite close on Tuesday to the unincorporated community of Meyers, a former trading post and Pony Express station about 6 miles from South Lake Tahoe that has one grocery store, a hardware shop, a lumber yard and a handful of restaurants and shops. Meyers residents are among those under evacuation orders.

"This thing is just unstoppable," Lee England, who fled her South Lake Tahoe apartment late Sunday, said as she looked at the Forest Service map outside the Carson City rec center Tuesday evening.

Before leaving, the 47-year-old hip hop skate performer and instructor initially thought – or hoped - she was seeing a storm in the distance.

"It was only wishful thinking that it was rain," she said. "It was smoke."

The smell of smoke hung in the air in Carson City. When ash fell on the back of England's Boston terrier Bon Bon, she bent and gently plucked the gray fleck from the dog's black and white fur.

THEY'VE GOT TO SAVE IT

Inside the rec center, Joan, a 68-year-old retired paralegal who gave only her first name, sat in the first row of cots, bent over her iPad watching fire updates being broadcast on Facebook from a community meeting near Sacramento, the California capital.

Joan said she watched the updates daily and even had a favorite briefer, a moustachioed fire official she described as particularly straightforward.

Joan said she moved from San Francisco in 1994 after seeing a picture in a real estate brochure of the house she now owns, built in the 1940s by a prominent South Lake Tahoe family. She described the irises and golden chain tree she planted in her garden, her dining room's redwood paneling and her nook where she had placed her grandmother's organ.

"It's unique. It's special," she said, and sobbed. "They've got to save it."

As of Tuesday, nearly 4,000 personnel and a squadron of over two dozen water-dropping helicopters were assigned to the blaze, whose cause remained under investigation.

"There is a substantial amount of resources right now dedicated to protecting the homes and property in South Lake Tahoe," U.S. Forest Service spokeswoman Dana Walsh told Reuters by phone Tuesday evening.

A National Weather Service red-flag warning for dangerously gusty winds and extremely low humidity was posted for the Tahoe area through Wednesday night. But Walsh said officials did not expect the wind to push the fire toward South Lake Tahoe Tuesday evening.

Caldor has been burning since mid-August in the mountains east of Sacramento. While it has not reached population centers such as South Lake Tahoe, at least 669 structures were listed as destroyed on Tuesday, most of them single-family homes, with 34,000 more buildings considered threatened, Cal Fire spokesman Herrera said.

By Tuesday, the fire had charred more than 191,000 acres (77,300 hectares) of forest, some 14,000 acres (5,665 hectares) more than the day before. Firefighters had managed to carve containment lines around just 16% of its perimeter.

No deaths have been reported. Three firefighters and two civilians were injured in recent days.

Only the Dixie fire, which has charred 771,000 acres (312,000 hectares) farther north in the Sierra, has burned more territory this year than Caldor.

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. (Reporting by Sharon Bernstein in Carson City, Nevada; Additional reporting by Steve Gorman in Los Angeles; Editing by Donna Bryson and Kim Coghill)

Our Standards: The Thomson Reuters Trust Principles.