More than 400 homes have been destroyed by the raging fire in Caldor, and the smoke has created conditions so dangerous that the air quality around the blaze is the worst in the country.
Burning through rugged terrain east of Sacramento, the Caldor fire reached over 100,000 acres over the weekend as it made its way to South Lake Tahoe. The fire was at 5% containment Monday morning after spreading unchecked for more than a week.
Strong winds of up to 40 mph spurred furious growth over the weekend, increasing the size of the 15,000-acre blaze on Saturday and Sunday morning.
The expansion of the blaze – now covering 106,562 acres – has slowed amid weakened winds, but the flames continue to threaten more than 17,000 structures, according to the latest incident report.
The winds, now 7-10 mph, are still pushing the flames north and east, toward the southern end of Lake Tahoe. The smoke suffocated the area, boosting “dangerous” air quality throughout the Lake Tahoe basin, according to the Air Quality Index.
As of Monday afternoon, Tahoe Vista, a census-designated locality on the lake’s north shore, had an AQI rating of 558, the worst in the country. Higher numbers represent more pollution; odds of 300 and above are considered dangerous. The concentration of small particles in Tahoe Vista – usually a scenic haven – was 58 times higher than the World Health Organization’s exposure recommendation.
Social media posts showed a strange, orange, ash-filled sky. Authorities advised residents to avoid outdoor exercise, close windows to prevent dirty air from entering, and use an air purifier if possible. The air quality on Monday was so bad because of the fire that it caused the closure of Nevada state parks in the Tahoe area and schools in Incline Village, located in Nevada along the northeast edge of the lake. Forecasts showed that the unhealthy air quality could last all weekend.
Nine national forests are closed amid increasing fire danger. On Monday, it was confirmed that 403 houses caught fire in the burnt area. Six commercial buildings and 148 minor structures were also destroyed, and at least 26 large structures were damaged.
Much of the destruction took place in the Grizzly Flats area and surrounding communities, which the blaze decimated days after igniting on August 14, said Fire spokesman Captain Jason Hunter. by Caldor.
The city was a smoking lunar landscape on Sunday. Burnt trees lined the road like blackened toothpicks, some still burning from the inside. The smoky silence was only broken by the occasional thunderous crackle of one falling to the ground.
Fallen power lines meandered along the streets. The post office was gone, its wheelchair ramp leading to a pile of rubble. All that was left of the Grizzly Flats Community Church was its foundation and the twisted metal skeletons of the chairs, still arranged in rows ready for service. The door was draped over the debris like a piece of melted cheese. Two Little Free Library kiosks near the road were intact, the books inside intact.
Firefighters are focused on containing the blaze west of Highway 89, an artery that borders the western edge of Lake Tahoe.
Chief Mike Blankenheim, of the Amador-El Dorado unit of the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection, said the strategy would give staff a large area to attack the blaze.
“We don’t want to let the fire reach Highway 89; we don’t want to fight the highway 89 fires, ”Blankenheim said at a community meeting on Sunday. “The reason for this decision, as I said before, is to give our people a lot of space to make different decisions and choose different places to fight the fire.”
A point fire started north of Highway 50 near the town of Kyburz and had reached 250 acres as of Monday morning. Firefighters were pushing it back and protecting structures in the area, officials said.
“It’s always a concern; it’s still burning up there, but they’ve managed to minimize its spread with these lines that are being put in place – so more work on that today, ”said Hunter.
Authorities have closed a section of Highway 50 for the foreseeable future, and some neighboring homes have lost power, firefighters said. New evacuation orders were issued on Friday.
On Saturday night, the El Dorado County Sheriff’s Office called for help in locating Marvin Hardy Creel, a 57-year-old man who should have been evacuated from Grizzly Flats. Authorities said Creel called a family member on Wednesday, but the call was poorly received. Since then, repeated calls to his phone have gone unanswered. Authorities found his abandoned white Dodge pickup in the Grizzly Flats area.
Nearly 30,000 people have been evacuated in the Caldor Fire, one of many large fires in California. Among those who crouched in evacuation shelters were Frank and Jeannette Castaneda, who lived in their truck in the parking lot of a community center.
Frank, 73, estimated it was the sixth time they had to evacuate in more than 35 years living in the rural community of Pacific House in the foothills of El Dorado.
The Cameron Park community center was full on Saturday, with 42 people inside and 27 more on the ground. With the shelter at full capacity, the Castanedas set up folding chairs under the trees for the afternoon. Maggie, a Catahoula Leopard dog, was lying on her bed between them. She had finally started to eat and was even sleeping a little, says Jeannette, 70 years old.
Although fires forced them out of their homes every 10 years or so, the couple said, the pace has picked up recently and the fires have become more violent.
“The fires seem to get bigger and bigger every year,” Frank said.
Caldor is one of more than a dozen major wildfires raging in the state. More than 1.54 million acres have been charred this year, according to Cal Fire.