SOUTH LAKE TAHOE – The South Lake Tahoe area was placed under a mandatory evacuation order Monday as the Caldor fire pushed closer to the popular vacation spot, fueled by intense winds.
The fire, which already has destroyed hundreds of structures, has been marching toward Lake Tahoe for days, but officials said the dangers heightened this weekend due to winds and heat.
“Today’s been a rough day, and there’s no bones about it,” said Jeff Marsolais, Eldorado National Forest supervisor, during a briefing Sunday evening.
The evacuation order covers communities just south of South Lake Tahoe, including nearly all the Lake Tahoe Basin in El Dorado County, from the California-Nevada state line on the lake’s southern end to Tahoma on its western shore.
For days, the big question has been whether the fire will jump the large granite ridge that stands between it and populous South Lake Tahoe. Many residents hoped that the stony topography would act as a buffer.
But Monday’s evacuation order was a worrisome indication that crews could be losing footing on the wind-whipped fire. The National Weather Service has issued red flag warnings indicating gusty wind conditions in the area from through 11 p.m. Tuesday.
Jason Hunter, Caldor fire information officer, said Monday the fire was still holding to the west of that ridge but worried that strong winds just beginning to pick up could generate spot fires and unpredictable behavior.
In the last few days, the fire has been spotting — or producing sparks that are carried by the wind and start new fires — about one-half mile ahead of itself, but crews are expecting that distance to expand to more than a mile on Monday due to wind, he said.
“Our significant concern is that spotting,” he said. Specifically, crews were worried about “embers being blown from up at the ridge top landing somewhere down in the valley and taking hold.”
By midafternoon, reports had emerged that the fire was sweeping through a Tahoe-area ski resort, the Sierra-at-Tahoe, off U.S. 50 in Twin Bridges.
According to incident meteorologist Jim Dudley, winds that have been affecting the fire on the ground level will be aided by southwesterly winds aloft due to a changing weather pattern. Gusts on Monday were expected to be as strong as 35 mph.
Although there is still activity on the western perimeter, the majority of growth was on the fire’s northeastern edge, near the town of Strawberry and in the direction of the Lake Tahoe Basin, officials said. By Monday morning, the fire had seared 177,260 acres and destroyed 472 homes.
The fire was 19% contained Sunday morning, but the containment dropped to 14% on Monday morning. More than 20,000 structures are threatened, officials said.