SOUTH LAKE TAHOE, Calif. (AP) — A huge firefighting force gathered Tuesday to defend Lake Tahoe from a raging wildfire that forced the evacuation of California communities on the south end of the alpine resort and put others across the state line in Nevada on notice to be ready to flee.
The streets of the popular vacation hot spot, normally filled with thousands of summer tourists, were all but deserted after rapid growth of the Caldor Fire forced a mass evacuation of South Lake Tahoe on Monday and triggered hours of gridlocked traffic. The motel parking lots that line the town’s main artery were empty.
At an evacuation center in Nevada, Lorie Major said she had packed a bag in preparation to leave and was at the grocery store when she got the alert on her phone.
“I had to tell myself: ’OK, Lorie: Get it together. It’s time to go,’” she said Tuesday from the Douglas County Community & Senior Center in Gardnerville, Nevada.
She put on headphones, turned on the Grateful Dead’s “Fire on the Mountain” and walked home to an empty apartment complex already vacated by neighbors. She and her mini Australian shepherd, Koda, took a 20-mile (32-kilometer) taxi ride from her South Lake Tahoe apartment to a hotel in Minden, Nevada.
Pushed by strong winds, the Caldor Fire crossed two major highways and burned mountain cabins as it swept down slopes into the Tahoe Basin. More firefighters arrived just after dark Monday, and many were dispatched to protect homes in the Christmas Valley area, about 10 miles (16 kilometers) from the city of South Lake Tahoe.
Thick smoke prevented air firefighting operations periodically last week. But since then, nearly two dozen helicopters and three air tankers dumped thousands of gallons of water and retardant on the fire, fire spokesman Dominic Polito said Tuesday.
The National Weather Service warned of critical fire weather conditions through Wednesday due to strong gusts, very low humidity and extremely dry fuel.
As flames advanced toward South Lake Tahoe, residents just over the state line in Nevada faced evacuation warnings. Nevada Gov. Steve Sisolak on Monday declared a state of emergency, citing the high risk that the California fire would burn into his state.
At a news conference Tuesday in Carson City, which is about 20 miles (32 kilometers) from the fire, he said there was no timeline for when evacuations might be ordered. He noted that ash was falling on his jacket.
“I’m standing here and I’m getting all ash particulates on my jacket, even,” the governor said. “This is serious, folks. This is extremely serious.”
Casino regulators were monitoring operations at the four largest gambling properties in Stateline, the Nevada town adjacent to South Lake Tahoe, said Kelly Colvin, audit chief for the Nevada Gaming Control Board.
Gambling has been significantly curtailed as staffing is limited due to mandatory evacuations in California, board analyst and spokesman Michael Lawton said.
Hotels are housing evacuees and fire crews. In all, Harrah’s, Harveys Lake Tahoe Casino, the Hard Rock and Montbleu Resort have more than 2,200 hotel rooms.
Evacuation shelters at community centers in Carson City and Douglas County were at capacity, officials said Tuesday. Additional sites were open at a park in Carson City, the Reno Sparks Convention Center and a rodeo event center in Dayton and Lyon County fairgrounds in Yerington.
At the senior center in Gardnerville, people had their temperature checked and answered questions about the coronavirus before entering a gymnasium of cots set up by the Red Cross. Outside, evacuees who had stayed in tents sorted through ramen noodles and plastic bags of clothes and keepsakes.
The threat of fire is so widespread that the U.S. Forest Service announced Monday that all national forests in California would be closed until Sept. 17.
“We do not take this decision lightly, but this is the best choice for public safety,” Regional Forester Jennifer Eberlien said.
More than 15,000 firefighters were battling dozens of California blazes, including crews from Utah, Washington, Wisconsin and West Virginia, said Mark Ghilarducci, director of California’s Office of Emergency Services. Crews from Louisiana had to return to that state because of Hurricane Ida, he said.
Only twice in California history have blazes burned from one side of the Sierra Nevada to the other, both this month, with the Caldor and Dixie fires, Porter said.
The Dixie, the second-largest wildfire in state history at 1,215 square miles (3,147 square kilometers), was burning about 65 miles (105 kilometers) north of the Lake Tahoe-area blaze. It prompted new evacuation orders and warnings Monday.
The Lake Tahoe area is usually a year-round recreational paradise offering beaches, water sports, hiking, ski resorts and golfing. South Lake Tahoe bustles with outdoor activities.
The last two wildfires that ripped through populated areas near Tahoe were the Angora Fire that destroyed more than 200 homes in 2007 and the Gondola Fire in 2002 that ignited near a chairlift at Heavenly Mountain Resort.
Since then, dead trees have accumulated and the region has coped with serious droughts, Wallace said. Climate change has made the West much warmer and drier in the past 30 years and will continue to make weather more extreme and wildfires more frequent and destructive, scientists say.
The California Highway Patrol added officers to help guide chaotic traffic out of South Lake Tahoe. Traffic crawled at times Monday on Highway 50, which is the main artery, but had cleared by afternoon.
Just a tiny fraction of city residents — 20 people — refused to evacuate, said Lindsey Baker, South Lake Tahoe spokeswoman. She said the gridlock indicated that people were obeying orders to flee.
The Caldor Fire has scorched nearly 300 square miles (777 square kilometers) since breaking out Aug. 14. After the weekend’s fierce burning, containment dropped from 19% to 16%.
More than 600 structures have been destroyed, and at least 33,000 more were threatened.
Har reported from San Francisco. Associated Press writers Jocelyn Gecker in San Francisco; Christopher Weber and John Antczak in Los Angeles; and Ken Ritter and Michelle Price in Las Vegas contributed to this report.
Sam Metz And Janie Har, The Associated Press