Firefighters safeguard homes in Christmas sink from the Caldor Fire Monday, Aug. 30, 2021.

You are watching: Fire in south lake tahoe today

Andrew Nixon /

By Emily Zentner, Ezra David Romero, danielle Venton, Raquel Maria Dillon

Susie Kocher watched with raising dread as the Caldor Fire roared throughout the west slope that the Sierra Nevada, churning towards her home near the basic of Echo Summit. Native high along the granite ridge nearby, the view of Lake Tahoe is generally pristine — a cerulean ocean in the sky, dotted with boats and also casinos lining the pine forest along the south Shore. But for two weeks in ~ the finish of August, smoke together brown as vehicle exhaust clouded the basin’s air. As Kocher well knows, having worked tirelessly for an ext than a te to prepare this community for a wildfire as a UC cooperative Extension forestry adviser, under almost every tree near South Lake Tahoe is a house.

She feared the quick approaching leaf of the fire, with its flames licking beyond 100 feet in the air. However she concerned most around showers of red hot embers, carried over a mile past the fire’s sheet by wind gusts, steal entrance into these dwellings through open vents or siding gaps, burn them from the within out.

“A firefighter is no going to help your home if the ember goes in v the attic,” she said.

A Storey county Fire ar crew war the Caldor Fire turn off of Highway 50 near Chiapa journey on Aug. 31, 2021.Beth LaBerge/KQED

As the fire approached, she cleared far needles and also brush from approximately her house. Through their truck, Kocher’s husband, stack George, hauled their sailboat and also other fire dangers to a vacant lot away from your home. She gathered her “wedding dress, mine husband"s silver and his mother"s wedding dress,” irreplaceable items come take with her as soon as they evacuated.

On Aug. 30, officials ordered southern Lake Tahoe to evacuate immediately. She joined countless others leaving en masse, her confront obscured through a heavy blue and also red respirator to protect her lung from the hazardous smoke.

Behind her as she drive away, ash and a hazy amber bright floated around her home.

What evacuation from south Lake Tahoe watch like. #caldorfire

— Susie Kocher (
UCsierraforest) respectable 30, 2021

The ‘wake-up moment’

When the sink Fire in Lake County destroyed 1,300 homes and also killed four human being in 2015, the wildfire community called the a “wake-up moment” to an era that catastrophic wildfire in California, thrust in part by climate change.

The Caldor, Dixie and other fires this summer do it decision clear that California’s wildfire dilemm is escalating. Around 4.3 million acres shed in 2020, a record that can be gone beyond by this year’s excessive fire season.

The state is in a attention place. Scorching summers coupled v tinderbox dry woodlands render fire containment ineffective — particularly when it"s hot, publicly or a combination of the two.

When the Caldor Fire burned into the Tahoe Basin, that looked choose this city, a facility of gravity for society in this component of the Sierra, can (and numerous thought would) burn.

Teodros Hailye/KQED

But that did not, thanks to the 3,500 firefighters, a timely transition in the winds and years the fire prepare by a myriad the players.

The Caldor Fire confirmed the risk California faces, but likewise a route forward, beginning with accept that wildfires space a part of our lives and also not inherently bad.

California organic Resources Secretary go Crowfoot identified as lot when the detailed about $1 billion in new spending because that fire breaks, tree thinning and also other procedures meant to prevent catastrophic wildfire.

“We room not going come respond our means out that this wildfire crisis,” that said.

A “confluence of every the appropriate ingredients” coalesced to journey the Caldor Fire’s erratic fire behavior, increasing the come of problems expected to arise over the next century, said Benjamin Hatchett, an atmospheric scientist with the Desert study Institute in Reno.

“I expect Tahoe is the wake-up call,” he said. “We all need to obtain together and also figure out what we’re walking to perform so that it’s no Tahoe City following year or Truckee next year.”

‘Hat’s off’ for forest thinning

The Caldor Fire ignited ~ above Aug. 14 near Pollock Pines in El Dorado County, and quickly decimated Grizzly Flats, burning a school, church and also the post office, leaving little left in the hill hamlet. Come date, the fire has actually burned more than 1,000 buildings and also north of 220,000 acres. Public official lifted the critical of the evacuation orders just this week. A couple of days earlier, the Dixie Fire burned across Kettle Ridge, west the Susanville, and also into the an excellent Basin, ending up being the an initial known wildfire to run across the Sierra Nevada. The flames ripped v high elevation woodlands usually as well saturated with heavy snow melt to burn.

Walter Tyler elementary in Grizzly Flats, Calif. Tuesday, august 17, 2021.Andrew Nixon /

“We don"t have any kind of record of that happening before,” Cal Fire cook Thom Porter said, including the blaze — 32 times the dimension of san Francisco — “was exceedingly resistant come control.” The Dixie Fire is California’s largest solitary fire on record, having consumed practically 1 million acres across five counties. Through the end of August, the Caldor Fire had melted into the Tahoe Basin, becoming the 2nd recorded fire to overcome the Sierra Nevada. That erratic fire behavior mirrored the Dixie Fire come the north, and also residents watched v alarm together the embers ignited spot fires mile in former of the flames, prefer missles shot native behind adversary lines, calculation firefighter containment lines — painstakingly hacked through hand tools and also bulldozers — essentially useless.

For firefighters, this year has been a grueling slog, and also the last two weeks of august were several of the worst. "Since we obtained here, our very first time actually resting was yesterday," stated Micah Conant, virtually a week into a shift at the Caldor Fire with his Tahoe Douglas Fire room crew.

The firefighters’ key objective: keep the blaze the end of southern Lake Tahoe, a thick mountain city of much more than 21,000 people, and also the surrounding communities, residence of Kocher and thousands more. Together a an initial line of defense, crews v bulldozers scraped planet bare versus homes in Meyers and also Christmas Valley, whereby they expected to make a desperate stand, said Phil Heitzke, a fuel specialist v the U.S. Woodland Service. Once the wildfire charged towards the fire line, “we were acquiring 100 or 150 foot flame lengths,” Heitzke said. However suddenly, the flames lower to the woodland floor. Firefighters crossed the dozer lines, safely able come work beside the flames, steering the wildfire far from the homes.

“The fire actions dropped down as soon as that hit this unit,” Heitzke said. If crews hadn’t thinned small trees and also brush below a couple of years ago, that wouldn’t have been possible.“The canopy is open, and that’s the key thing through these fires, having actually that open canopy therefore the can’t sustain a crown run” where the fire burns native treetop to treetop, Heitzke said.

“For the persons who have been working on these jobs the critical two decades my hat"s turn off to them.”

A integrated buffer

Cut stumps in the forest near southern Lake Tahoe present where preventative woodland thinning take it place prior to the Caldor Fire shed the area.Danielle Venton/KQED

Tens of thousands of acres have actually been cure in the Lake Tahoe container in the last 15 years, much more than is usual for forested hill communities. The job-related is not cheap. Payment crews with chain saws to slim overgrown woodlands can cost about $2,000 an acre.

Comparing that against the worth of residences saved — recent residence sales in the area have actually garnered a median price that $750,000 — the looks choose a good investment. But here, Lake Tahoe is privileged. The city has actually a lot larger populace than most mountain towns and boasts a wealthy, largely white conservation community that deserve to afford come pay for expertise essential to get good at win competitive grants. “There’s a political press there," Heitzke said.

Residents and others have treated more than 40% that the Tahoe basin since 2008 v mechanical thinning and “good fire,” the intentional burn of special underbrush to slow-moving down future wildfires. Additionally, thousands of homeowners approximately the Tahoe basin have all set their houses and also properties to resist wildfire consisting of cleaning needles, trees and also debris around homes, and installing brand-new roofs and vent consist of to protect against embers from gaining inside a house.

A map of treatments in the area reflects an extensive, though patchy, jigsaw puzzle of mechanically thinning and pile burns on both sides of Highway 50. The Forest business said in the past five years plenty of of those fuel treatments in the Tahoe container included prescribed fire.

"South Lake Tahoe and that totality area has actually done an absolutely extraordinary task of law a the majority of work to minimize fuels," claimed Crystal Kolden, a UC Merced fire scientist.

Bob Larsen’s house is about a block away from whereby the Caldor Fire stopped. He credits the locations of treated forest with conserving his and his next-door neighbors homes and also said the 2007 Angora Fire, i m sorry incinerated 240 residences southwest of southern Lake Tahoe, galvanized the community around fire preparations.

emphasize the prominence of doing something around the overstocked forest and also trying come make sure that homeowners room doing the work-related that they have to do to provide that defensible space,” Larsen said.Because of forest treatments, he claimed his ar had a “buffer between sort of the very hot fire and also fire that was much more manageable, ns think is a huge part that why they were able come succeed and also why we room so lucky.”

Bob Larsen stands in the woodland near his home.Danielle Venton/KQED

Fire here is expected

For roughly four decades, California wildfires have actually advanced higher and higher into the backcountry, increasing in elevation at a rate of 25 feet every year, with the largest development in the Sierra Nevada, according to a new study from researchers at UC Merced and elsewhere.

Researchers to speak the fire’s spread out is propelled by warmer and also dryer problems with eye melting previously in the year. Warming temperatures have driven a fivefold increase in summertime forest fires throughout California, feeling most significantly in the Sierra Nevada, follow to research published in 2019, a year prior to last summer"s record-torching fire season.

According to the California Tahoe Conservancy’s assessment of the Lake Tahoe Basin’s vulnerability come climate change, the container can intend to see higher temperatures, more extreme storms, much less snow, an ext drought stress and larger locations burned by wildfires over the following century.

“It"s miscellaneous that"s happening today,” stated South Lake Tahoe Mayor agree Tem Devin Middlebrook. “ isn"t something that we deserve to put off for 20 or 30 years,” the said.

Culture the suppression

Fire experts say a plan of fire prevention has actually left woodland stands across the state thick through overgrown brush and also trees.

After the good Fire the 1910, which burned 20 million acres throughout the northwest and also killed 86 people, California forest managers began proactively suppressing wildfires. The bulk of the 10s of countless acres of woodland in California are managed by the U.S. Forest Service. In 1935, that agency passed the 10 a.m. Rule, a mandate dictating any kind of fire must be managed by the next day in ~ 10 a.m. Although this policy was rescinded in 1974, this way of regulating forests has actually led to more than 80 years of suppressing fires by commonwealth firefighters and Cal Fire.

What specialists say is often absent from this conversation is the racist removal of indigenous American people from California in the mid-19th century. More than 16,000 to be killed, others were required onto reservations and also many were enslaved.



The racism Removal Of indigenous Americans In California Is Often absent From Wildfire Discussions, experts Say

Along through their physics beings, the understanding of taking treatment of the floor through woodland thinning and cultural burns was also removed. This activity resulted in overgrown forests, said Don Hankins, a plains Miwok fire skilled at Chico State.

If California was “still stewarded repeatedly with aboriginal fire, us would definitely not view the exact same level of fires that we"re seeing,” he said in 2020.

There room indications that the state is an altering its fire policies. Having spent $3.4 billion on wildfire suppression critical year, Gov. Gavin Newsom earmarked around $1 exchange rate in brand-new spending because that fire breaks, woodland thinning, and other actions to prevent megafires before they get out of control. Crowfoot, of the herbal Resources Agency, shown the state is prepared to increase “upfront, proactive actions,” and the package includes $19 million because that the state to work-related with people on prescribed burns, increase from simply $1 million critical year.

California lawgiver have also passed a bill the wouldn’t hold prescribed burners responsible if a fire escapes it’s containment lines, unless they space grossly negligent. Lastly, a commonwealth Senate framework bill could provide more than $16 billion end a te for fuel management.

Megafires push forest areas to the brink

Lake Tahoe Blvd in southern Lake Tahoe is mostly empty top top Tuesday, Aug. 31, 2021, ~ evacuees waited hours to leave the area ~ above Monday.Beth LaBerge/KQED

A trail of cars lined Highway 50 during South Lake Tahoe’s evacuation top top Aug. 30, yet Bill Schaeffer, wearing a T-shirt, the exact same moody gray shade as the smoke-darkened sky, moved his bike towards the fire. The scruffy guy with long locks hurried to gather his belongings at home in time to record a bus out of the city.

Just 2 weeks prior, Schaeffer, 68, was unhoused, prefer he had actually been on and also off for virtually two decades. He freshly moved into a small, affordable residence with the help of a local support team for unhoused people.

"If I lose my ar to live, then I"m going to probably be forced earlier to being homeless again," he said, note that rents here, like in other places throughout California, have risen to it is in "sky high."

Known to the outside civilization as a sparkling traveler area, south Lake Tahoe is house to the will staff, bartenders and thousands the others that live and also work there, maintaining the machine of the ar humming.

Construction workers Jose Mora and also Henry Jose Mendoza fled south Lake Tahoe, too, taking shelter at one evacuation center in Carson City, Nevada. Mendoza only had actually the apparel on his body due to the fact that they didn’t have actually time to pack before leaving. The friends were puzzled whether or no they essential to evacuate.

“We were looking in ~ Facebook, and also then the news,” said Mora. “We were just waiting. Then we got a call and we the map and also we just started getting whatever we could.”

Jose Mora (right) and also Henry Jose Mendoza, both building workers, fled south Lake Tahoe throughout the Caldor Fire, taking sanctuary at an evacuation center in Carson City, Nevada.Danielle Venton/KQED

On the eve of the evacuation, Donarae Reynolds and also her husband bustled approximately their house in the gold Bear community just exterior South Lake Tahoe, packing medications, clothes and other essentials right into their cars and camper trailer.

They’d removed unrecoverable family photos from the walls, and stowed your passports, life trust and other important documents in a safety and security deposit box at the bank. Their community was ready once the evacuation order come in.

“We every simply gained in our cars and waved to each other and we took off,” Reynolds said.


Reynolds’ community was uniquely prepared for this day to come. In 2019, Reynolds and also her neighbors hosted an evacuation drill come prepare for tragedies like the Caldor Fire. They’ve also held clean-up days and got citizens to authorize up because that emergency alerts.

“If it to be a case where you had actually no warning and also everyone just had to scramble, ns think that it would have been a totally different sort of an evacuation,” Reynolds said.

The next-door neighbors kept up through each other while they to be evacuated, commerce Ring doorbell camera footage and also aerial views of the community to view if the fire had reached it. The fire forgive their residences this time, and they’ve because returned to gold Bear.

A issue of survival

A CalFire truck drives on a smoke-filled Highway 50 between Pollock Pines and Strawberry on Tuesday, Aug. 31, 2021, as the Caldor Fire burns nearby.Beth LaBerge/KQED

Back in Tahoe v her home and its two decks still standing, Kocher claimed she feels fortunate to live in southern Lake Tahoe v ample fire prevention and also suppression assets, specifically when adjacent communities don’t have actually the same sources to stop the flames.

“I"m involved for those communities,” she said. “It"s a issue of survival uneven we get our act together.”

It’s easy to reprimand the fires all on a warming climate, but UC Berkeley fire scientific research professor Scott Stephens said the absence of prevention efforts and the overgrown woodlands amount come the “vast majority” of the state’s current problem.

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Hatchett, through the Desert study Institute, claimed that still-rising temperatures, significantly arid conditions, and also other effects of climate change is prefer “pouring gas” top top wildfires and also why “we need climate activity now.”

But also climate action, the admits, won’t stop the slim volume of dead brush and also trees in forests from burn or stop the amount of worldwide warming currently baked into the atmosphere. But, yet, he has hope.

“We"re no going to stop that train,” the admitted, “but us might have the ability to divert it.”