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Fire official warns massive California wildfire is ‘knocking on the door’ to Lake Tahoe area

The Caldor Fire now threatens the Lake Tahoe area after consuming over 100,000 acres since its ignition on Aug. 14 in El Dorado County, Calif. (Video: The Washington Post)

A massive wildfire that’s already consumed much of a small California town is creeping closer to popular communities and tourist destinations in the Lake Tahoe area, its thick smoke shrouding the clear blue lake in ominous orange hues in recent days.

Now, officials say the Caldor Fire in Northern California is of the highest concern.

It’s “the number one priority in the nation for fires to get additional and new resources that are coming available,” Chief Thom Porter, Cal Fire director, said at a news conference. “It is that important.”

The fire, which has burned more than 117,000 acres as of Tuesday, is “knocking on the door to the Lake Tahoe Basin.”

“We have all efforts in place to keep it out of the basin,” Porter said. “But we do need to also be aware that is a possibility based on the way fires have been burning.”

The fire has destroyed more than 600 structures, including 455 single residences since it began Aug. 14. It leveled much of the small town of Grizzly Flats as it exploded in size in the few days after igniting. Officials are eyeing movement toward the area of Lake Tahoe, a popular alpine lake region with resort communities on the California-Nevada border.

The city of South Lake Tahoe, an area at the lake’s southern shore with beaches and campgrounds, has a population of 22,525, and fluctuates between 30,000 and 100,000 during summers and weekends, with higher fluctuations during holiday weekends, according to a city spokeswoman, Lindsey Baker.

“It’s definitely something we’re monitoring with high attention levels,” said Joe Irvin, city manager for South Lake Tahoe.

He said “anxiety in the community has been high, and that’s partially because of smoke that has come into the Tahoe basin.”

Smoke drifting from the Caldor Fire has covered areas in and around Lake Tahoe in recent days, with air quality listed as hazardous for much of the region Tuesday.

Irvin noted that officials have said there should be plenty of time to respond “if the circumstances change from where they are now.”

No evacuation warnings or mandates are in place for the city of South Lake Tahoe, he added.

As of Tuesday, a map of the fire perimeter showed the blaze southwest of the lake’s basin.

In a briefing Tuesday morning, Tim Ernst, operations sections chief for the Cal Fire incident management team addressing the Caldor Fire, said the area around the northeastern perimeter of the fire is “one of our major priorities of the incident.”

“We’re trying to stop that eastward movement of the fire,” Ernst said. The fire is 9 percent contained.

Irvin said most of the concerns he’s been hearing are from area residents. Many visitors have canceled reservations around town or left when the air quality became bad, he said.

Carol Chaplin, president and chief executive of the Lake Tahoe Visitors Authority, said visitors have started to call, asking about the conditions, including the air quality.

Ahead of the usually busy Labor Day weekend, Chaplin said some area events have been canceled because of fire-related concerns.

“It’s unfortunate,” Chaplin said. “We were having a great summer, and our businesses were breathing a sigh of relief and starting to pick up momentum after 18 months of covid-19.”

She said the organization was providing up-to-date information from fire officials on its website and for anyone who calls, noting that conditions are changing every moment and that changing winds could mean a shift in the air quality or fire risk.

Chaplin said the organization isn’t making any specific recommendations to visitors but is providing them the latest official information “so people can make the best decision.”

“We’re a mountain community, we’re — I don’t want to say we’re good at this — but we’re used to dealing with Mother Nature,” she said. “Sometimes, we have big snows and road closures, and sometimes, we have wildfires. Unfortunately, it’s a little more than we’re used to, but we’re seeing those kind of events all across the country.”

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