The Caldor fire has been burning for the better half of August and now it’s taken a devastating turn, burning through ski resorts and mountain recreation areas, causing one of California’s most popular areas to evacuate: Lake Tahoe.
Now, a region once known for blue skies, snowy powder, forested mountains, and a crystal-clear blue lake is literally on fire, and residents and vacationers are jamming the few remaining passable highways to get out.
“Caldor is a real tough one for us,” Cal Fire Chief and director Thom Porter said during a briefing Monday. “Very difficult terrain as well as conditions to fight this fire.”
Over the weekend, the Clador fire burned more than 20,000 acres and is headed straight for residential areas of the valley floor. That makes the fire the third-largest burning in California at the moment, burning more than 177,260 acres as of Monday afternoon.
The fire has been raging since August 14 and has burned at least 472 homes and 11 commercial properties, with 20,000 more structures and 30,000 people at risk, according to CAL Fire.
While initial evacuation orders only consisted of certain areas, as high winds turned the flames toward the heavily-populated valley floor, the entire town of South Lake Tahoe was told to evacuate Monday.
“There is fire activity happening in California that we have never seen before,” Porter said. “I’ve said it before, but the critical thing for you, the public, to know is to evacuate early. Early! A warning doesn’t mean you need to stick around and wait for an order. If you’re sucking smoke and you have respiratory or other underlying issues and you’re in the smoke for days. You’re not going to be out of the smoke for many more days so find a way out.”
By Monday afternoon, the fire was still burning mostly uncontrolled with images coming in of jammed highways, flames burning around ski lift chairs, and thick smoke blanketing the lake.
The Caldor fire is just 14 percent contained, according to CAL Fire.
Many residents took heed of the evacuation orders and took to the highway—causing a two hour traffic jam on Highway 50 heading east out of Lake Tahoe, according to according to the San Francisco Chronicle. The same highway heading west toward San Francisco is closed. Pictures of the traffic jam show drivers walking through cars as the vehicles are in absolute gridlock.
One man even decided to stand in the middle of a lane and play his violin as he leaned on a Jeep while waiting for traffic to move.
Strong winds continue to stoke the flames, worrying officials that the fire will push even closer to more residential areas, according to the SF Gate. It’s also reached popular ski resorts, like the Sierra-at-Tahoe Mountain Resort. Pictures show fires blazing on the ski hills usually covered by snowy powder in the winter. Ski lifts are also shown being charred.
Other facilities have also closed their doors and evacuated. The area’s hospitals have already transferred patients to other healthcare centers, according to KCRA. California Governor Gavin Newsom even went as far to declare a state of emergency in El Dorado County, where Tahoe is located, on August 17 because of the fire.
In response, more than 3,500 firefighters have been deployed to fight the flames in the heavy timber and rough terrain.
“It feels like a new fire every single day," Dakota Brown, a Del Rosa hotshot firefighter told KCRA. "Every day seems like a new challenge for us.