To Save Lake Tahoe, They Spared No Expense. The Fire Came Over the Ridge Anyway.

Experts believe that the challenge is a cautionary tale for future megafires in the West and lays bare a certain futility in trying to fully control the most aggressive wildfires.

A firefighter working to save a home in Meyers, Calif., on Tuesday.Credit…

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By Thomas Fuller and Livia Albeck-Ripka

Photographs by Max Whittaker

SOUTH LAKE TAHOE, Calif. — They sent thousands of firefighters, 25 helicopters and an arsenal of more than 400 fire engines and 70 water trucks. Yet the fire still advanced.

They dropped retardant chemicals through an ash-filled sky and bulldozed trees and brush to slow the march of the flames through the steep and rugged terrain of the Sierra Nevada. Yet the fire still advanced.

Bursting across a granite ridge into the Lake Tahoe basin, the Caldor fire now threatens tens of thousands of homes and hotels that ring the lake.

On Tuesday, the smoke-choked streets of South Lake Tahoe, the most populous city on the lake, were deserted, save for police patrol cars and an occasional convoy of fire vehicles. Thousands of residents and tourists had been evacuated the day before.

Caldor

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The lake, renowned for its bright blue hues and the evergreen forests that surround it, was smothered in a slate of sickly orange-gray haze. On the Nevada side of the border, which has not yet been evacuated, one industry was still limping along: A trickle of gamblers sat at slot machines to the whooshing sound of large air purifiers that attempted to keep out the pungent smoke. The air quality index was nearing 500, a level considered hazardous.

Battling the Caldor fire has been humbling and harrowing for California firefighters. Experts believe that the challenge is a cautionary tale for future megafires in the West and lays bare a certain futility in trying to fully control the most aggressive wildfires.

“No matter how many people you have out on these fires, it’s not a large enough work force to put the fire out,” said Malcolm North, a fire expert with the U.S. Forest Service and a professor at the University of California, Davis.

“You can save particular areas or particular homes,” Professor North said. “But the fire is pretty much going to do what it’s going to do until the weather shifts.”

On Monday, propelled by strong winds, the fire crested a granite ridge that officials had hoped would serve as a natural barrier. Embers leapfrogged past firefighting crews and descended toward the valley floor just miles from South Lake Tahoe. By early Tuesday, the fire had taken hold in the Tahoe basin. Stands of pine ignited by flying embers were fully engulfed in flames, casting a bright orange glow into the night sky.

It was only the second time, officials said, that a wildfire that began on the western slopes of the Sierra Nevada crossed into the eastern side. The first was also this summer: the Dixie fire, the second largest in California history. No deaths have been reported in either fire.

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