Massive Wildfire Forces Evacuations at Smoke-Shrouded Lake Tahoe

Posted on: August 31, 2021, 09:04h. 

Last updated on: August 31, 2021, 03:08h.

Thousands of Lake Tahoe residents and visitors continued to flee the raging Caldor Fire, as flames threatened the popular casino and outdoor-recreation destination only days before the normally busy Labor Day weekend.

Lake Tahoe casinos
Smoke from the Caldor Fire blankets Lake Tahoe casinos at Stateline, Nev., this week. The wildfire has been burning since Aug. 14. (Image: Fox 40)

In Nevada, Gov. Steve Sisolak (D) declared a state of emergency. He directed state agencies to assist in protecting lives and property at the alpine lake straddling the Nevada-California border. The lake is in the Sierra Nevada mountains, about 20 miles west of Carson City, the state capital.

As smoke and ash choked towns that rim the massive body of water, residents of South Lake Tahoe, Calif., a city of 22,000, were ordered this week to evacuate. Almost all of the Tahoe Basin in El Dorado County, California, is being evacuated.

South Lake Tahoe Mayor Tamara Wallace said she thought the Caldor Fire would not encroach on the town, according to the Associated Press. In the past, fires didn’t spread this rapidly.

“It’s just yet another example of how wildfires have changed over the years,” she said. “It’s just a culmination of 14 to 18 more years of dead trees, the droughts we’ve had since then, those kinds of things.”

Casinos Shelter Visitors

Hotel-casinos are scattered throughout the Nevada side of the freshwater lake, from Crystal Bay on the North Shore to Stateline, 28 miles away on the South Shore. The destination is popular with boaters in the summer and with snow skiers in winter. The Lake Tahoe area has hosted a Winter Olympics and a recent NHL regular season ice hockey game.

However, last week visitors were seeking shelter in casinos and other enclosed spaces, as smoke shrouded the area. Now, many visitors and residents are in vehicles, heading to safety in places such as Carson City. Some casinos this week began closing their gaming floors.

On Monday, US Sen. Dina Titus (D-Nev.) tweeted her thanks to the casinos that housed “those in harm’s way.”

Changing Climate

Since breaking out on Aug. 14, the Caldor Fire southwest of Lake Tahoe has burned through 277 square miles, an area larger than Chicago, according to news reports. As the fire inches closer to the lake, more than 600 structures have been destroyed, and at least 20,000 more are threatened.

At Sierra-at-Tahoe ski resort, some buildings have been lost in the fire. The resort is south of the Fallen Leaf and Lower Echo Lakes.

California Fire Chief Thom Porter said the fire early this week was “hung up” in granite formations about six miles southwest of South Lake Tahoe, according to the San Jose Mercury News.

Crystal Kolden, a fire scientist at the University of California, Merced, said for a long time people have thought the granite wall would keep fires out of the Lake Tahoe Basin, the Los Angeles Times reported.

But this is a new world with climate change, and that basically is no longer a viable last line of defense,” she said.

Kolden said homes at the lake have wooden shake roofs and wooden porches. Plus, the area has a buildup of pine cones and needles.

“It’s so dry, that it is perfect kindling,” Kolden said.