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South Lake Tahoe residents begin cautious return as nearly half-contained Caldor Fire burns nearby

Traffic flows along Highway 50 near Stateline, Nev., as residents begin to return to South Lake Tahoe, Calif., on Sept. 5. (Jane Tyska/AP)

South Lake Tahoe, Calif. — On Monday morning, enough smoke still lingered here to irritate the eyes if one stayed outside long enough, and it smelled like the acrid end of a burning incense stick.

But that didn’t matter to those among the steady trickle of cars that made their way across the Nevada line, crossing Lincoln Highway as it turned into Lake Tahoe Road. The residents were glad to be returning to their homes after being forced to evacuate because of the Caldor Fire.

Signs that days ago had warned of danger and urged them to flee now welcomed them back.

Outside the Hard Rock Hotel and Casino in Stateline, Nev., Carolina Cumpa and her husband loaded their white Ford Explorer with the items they’d hurriedly thrown into the vehicle when they evacuated their home more than a week ago.

Cumpa, 29, who works as a housekeeper at the Atlantis hotel in Reno, Nev., said that she, her husband and their toddler daughter had been confined to the hotel for seven days. She had prepared meals using a slow cooker and groceries that she and her husband had packed when they left home.

Cumpa said her husband is a houseman at the Hard Rock, which provided them shelter, but being in a room with only a king-size bed and a crib brought from home made her miss their usual space.

She was eager to get home and clean up what was left behind in the rush to leave — and to cook on a real stove.

“We love Tahoe,” she said, noting that they had lived there for three years. “We’re happy the firefighters saved our home.”

The Caldor Fire, the 15th-largest fire in California history, has burned through more than 216,000 acres of land and damaged more than 77 structures, according to an update provided by Cal Fire on Tuesday morning. More than 770 single residences have been destroyed along with more than a dozen commercial properties. The fire is about 49 percent contained; authorities anticipate that it won’t be fully contained until Sept. 27.

The fire sent residents hundreds of miles away and across state lines to seek shelter. For residents willing to return under a warning with fair air quality, it was a respite from being turned away from shelters and hotels or cramped living spaces offered by loved ones.

The Caldor Fire, a massive wildfire that has consumed more than 270 square miles in Northern California, threatened to move into the Lake Tahoe area on Aug. 30. (Video: The Washington Post, Photo: Fred Greaves/Reuters/The Washington Post)

On Sunday, South Lake Tahoe’s evacuation order was downgraded, allowing about 22,000 people to return home. Nearby communities had downgraded their warnings a day earlier.

Bob and Connie Lopez were sitting in a hot tub on the third floor of their home here drinking coffee Monday morning when they heard the rush of traffic.

It had been awhile for the couple, who had decided to wait out the danger at home instead of evacuating. Bob Lopez, a retired firefighter, said he had been confident that the fire wouldn’t reach their lake property.

It was actually “kind of annoying to hear noise,” he said Monday as a family of ducks made its way onto his property to eat the food he leaves for them.

He and his wife had become accustomed to the eerie silence of their Tahoe Keys neighborhood as they sheltered in place with air purifiers along with their Irish setter, Trudy, and Gracie the cat.

Many restaurants, souvenir shops and convenience stores remained closed, prompting returnees to stock up on essentials at Safeway with the expectation that services might not return anytime soon.

Businesses that were open were anxious for customers to return to the area.

Kathleen Mason, general manager of the Holiday Inn Express, said the hotel on the main drag of Lake Tahoe Boulevard reopened its doors Monday morning after evacuating seven days earlier when it housed Grizzly Flats evacuees, post office workers and firefighters.

Mason estimated that the hotel lost $120,000 over the weekend because of the closure.

“It’s this weekend and Fourth of July that are the busiest for us,” she said, adding that summer is the busy season. “Our summer is over.”

Summer concerts, for example, are good for business, but most were canceled this year and last.

Not far from the hotel, Chris Nicholson was doing repairs on his camper. It had been damaged by a bear shortly after he returned from Santa Cruz on Monday morning.

South Lake Tahoe residents had been warned about roaming bears attracted by trash left curbside as residents evacuated. Most of the burglaries reported while people were away were actually bear break-ins, KTVU reported.

Nicholson, a part-time resident, said that since the evacuation, he had been contemplating selling the Gardner Mountain neighborhood home he built 10 years ago.

“Just the last three years, how things have been going, the area has lost its charm for me,” he said.

Other residents said that despite the increased threat of wildfires, the lure of the area’s scenic beauty and great skiing has not waned. That alone, they said, provided some assurance that the area would be saved.

South Lake has seen an influx of people fleeing the Bay Area and other congested communities that are only a few hours’ drive away as work-from-home options multiply because of the pandemic.

Living in the region, however, requires one to be somewhat of a survivalist, more because of the brutal winters than summer emergencies, Tahoe Keys resident Brady Hodge said Monday as he prepared to mow his lawn.

Hodge, 70, had gone back and forth on whether to evacuate. The 45-year Tahoe resident had originally planned to leave by boat, but a friend talked him out of it. After spending an hour in stalled traffic, he went back home to reload his boat with supplies, only to switch plans again.

He packed food for his golden retriever, Toby, his tax returns, and six bottles of wine, and got into his car again around 5 p.m. last Monday and drove to a Red Cross evacuation center. It was full. The shelter offered him and about 150 others space to sleep on the lawn, but they were awakened by sprinklers around 2 a.m., he said. After that, he went from one full Carson City, Nev., hotel to another before finding a hotel in Reno that would take him and Toby, he said.

A friend who works for a Carson City public agency offered to drive him home from Reno on Friday night. He left his vehicle behind for the chance to head home.

When he returned, he opened up one of the three remaining bottles of sauvignon blanc, poured a glass — a daily ritual — sat down and thanked his “lucky stars.” He emailed his neighbors to let them know he was back, and that their homes were fine.

“I’m thankful to be back,” he said. “I’m thankful to be alive. I’m thankful my house is still standing.”

He said he had considered staying home the next time a fire comes, but a friend told him “it won’t be a next time because it’ll burn.”

Hodge said he has enough groceries to last him until the businesses on his deserted block start reopening. He anticipates that most of his neighbors won’t be back for some time, but he’s not worried.

“I’m not going sightseeing or hanging out at any parties,” he said.