The Caldor Fire forced the evacuation of basically the entirety of South Lake Tahoe, a resort community of 22,000, on Monday. Firefighters are waging an all-out battle to keep the fire from reaching the town and wreaking havoc in the Lake Tahoe Basin.
Among the tools at their disposal are the snow guns used at the ski resorts that dot the surrounding mountains. On Sunday night, remarkable scenes unfolded at Sierra-at-Tahoe, a resort located along Route 50 and smack in the middle of the Caldor Fire’s path. There, firefighters and the resort stood against the flames.
Snow Guns Enlisted to Stop the Blaze
The resort’s snow guns usually sit idle in summer, waiting for below-freezing temperatures to make artificial snow. The high-pressure water lines used to spray frozen faux precipitation also make them a valuable tool in case of summer fire. “We are prepared to fight the good fight with fire crews + apparatus on-site,” the resort wrote in an Instagram post on Sunday morning.
That included the snow guns, which were used to wet vegetation and structures in hopes of protecting them from the advancing wall of flames.
The Caldor Fire Has Already Wrought Major Damage
Despite the intensity of the flames, the resort’s snow guns and firefighters working through the night appear to have saved the ski lifts and structures. KCRA3-TV reporter Mike TeSelle tweeted pictures on Monday morning local time showing surreal scenes of smouldering logs and ground amidst the lifts and snow guns. But he reported that all structures were saved.
Caldor Fire Has Already Destroyed Over 470 Structures
Beyond the resort, the fire has already destroyed hundreds of structures in the communities that are interspersed in the normally placid forests of the Sierra Nevada. Grizzly Flats, a small community to the west of the Lake Tahoe basin, was burned over last week even as life continued mostly as normal in the towns closer to the lake. More than 470 structures have been destroyed, permanently altering the course of people’s lives and livelihoods.
Firefighters Have Faced Near-Impossible Conditions
There are currently 3,684 firefighting personnel battling the Caldor Fire. But the steep terrain and erratic conditions have made it hard for them to get a handle on it. As of Monday morning local time, the fire was just 14% contained and had burned through 71,000 hectares.
South Lake Tahoe Faces Major Risks
Conditions on Sunday night were brutal, but Monday could prove even worse. Red flag warnings are in place across the Sierras with winds expected to gust to 56 km/h amid single-digit humidity. That’s about as catastrophic as fire conditions can get, and in part why local officials decided to evacuate South Lake Tahoe. There are a staggering 18,347 structures in the fire’s path.
California and other western states have faced increasingly dire wildfire weather. A mix of the climate crisis, decades of fire suppression, and infrastructure prone to igniting fires have made forests more prone to explosive wildfires.
Watching a fire crawl into the Tahoe basin raises uncomfortable questions about how safe mountain towns are in the face of these trends, and shows the monumental effort needed to ensure those that continue to live there are afforded some protection.
Evacuations Are Ongoing But Traffic Is Thick
Evacuating thousands of people is no small task, particularly with one major road going east and out of harm’s way. Sheriffs went door-to-door to give the orders for residents and tourists to leave. But crushing traffic jams followed.
Brake lights lit up bumper-to-bumper traffic under smoke-clogged skies. Rob Carlmark, a meteorologist with ABC10, warned that those in traffic should have a plan if spot fires start to ignite along the road, underscoring the danger of the situation.
It’s an eerily familiar scene; those fleeing the deadly Camp Fire were stuck in similar traffic and many fled on foot as the fire suddenly tore into the town of Paradise, California. That’s not to say this situation will be the same, but the danger is there as winds whip up.
Leisure and Terror Are Increasingly Juxtaposed
Scenes like those that played out at Sierra-at-Tahoe are also becoming the bizarre normal of life in the era of climate change. Turkish and Greek beachgoers had a front-row seat to explosive wildfires there recently, smoke-filled skies have been the backdrop for tourist photos in Australia during the 2019-20 bushfire season, and the list goes on.
It reinforces what the recent Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change report made clear: Nowhere is safe as long as we keep burning fossil fuels.