SOUTH LAKE TAHOE, Calif. — Better weather on Thursday helped the battle against a huge California wildfire threatening communities around Lake Tahoe, but fire commanders warned firefighters to be prepared for ongoing dangers.
Strong winds and dry conditions that drove the Caldor Fire east through high elevations of the Sierra Nevada for days faded after the hub of a Northern California gem known the world over threatened to burn down. Thousands were forced to flee the region’s largest city, South Lake Tahoe.
“I feel like we are truly the luckiest community in the entire world right now. I’m so incredibly happy,” said Mayor Tamara Wallace, who evacuated to Truckee, California.
But wind gusts were likely in some areas, and the forest was still extremely dry, officials warned.
Still, the mood was one of optimism, given the speed with which the fire grew earlier in the week. Flames raced so quickly toward the resort city that officials ordered a mass evacuation of all 22,000 residents on Monday before ordering those across the state line in Douglas County, Nevada, to leave a day later.
“It’s finally a chance to take a breath,” said Clive Savacool, chief of South Lake Tahoe Fire Rescue. “It’s a breath full of smoke. Nonetheless, I think we’re all breathing a little bit easier and we feel like we’re making some progress.”
The Caldor Fire spanned more than 328 square miles (850 square kilometers) and was 25% contained Thursday. Its northeast tip was about 3 miles (5 kilometers) south of South Lake Tahoe and nearing the California-Nevada border, where visitors like to hit the casinos in Stateline.
About 15 million people visit Lake Tahoe every year for hiking, snowboarding, water sports and gambling. The possibility that wildfire might rip through the international destination alarmed those who have vivid memories of vacationing at Tahoe.
California has experienced increasingly larger and deadlier wildfires in recent years as climate change has made the West much warmer and drier over the past 30 years. Scientists have said weather will continue to be more extreme and wildfires more frequent, destructive and unpredictable. No deaths have been reported so far this fire season.
Fire crews from around the country joined in the fight against the fire, which broke out Aug. 14 southwest of the Lake Tahoe area, chasing residents from more remote areas of El Dorado County. Officials said that at least 622 homes, 12 commercial properties and 177 minor structures have been destroyed, though the tally is incomplete because many areas are not safe to be surveyed.
The Caldor Fire still threatened at least 33,000 more homes and structures. On Wednesday, firefighters were ferried by boat to protect cabins at nearby Echo Lake, while three of the region’s largest ski resorts, Heavenly, Kirkwood and Sierra at Tahoe, brought out snow-making devices to hose down buildings.
Jonathan Pierce, a spokesman with the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection, said crews are chasing spot fires and trying to keep flames away from populated areas.
There was no timeline for when residents might return.
South Lake Tahoe can easily accommodate 100,000 people on a busy weekend, but on Thursday, just before the Labor Day weekend, it was eerily empty. Thick smoke made it difficult to see across the street, said Savacool, the fire chief.
“I’s really just a dead, dead town and it’s got an apocalyptic feel with garbage strewn about from the bears,” he said.
The mood was just as strange across the state line after casinos and stores closed. Evacuation holdouts who didn’t have cars lined up outside the Montbleu Resort Casino & Spa waiting for buses to take them to Reno.
Kevin O’Connell, a disabled plumber from South Lake Tahoe, wore ski goggles to protect his eyes from blowing ash. He had planned to stay and ride out out the evacuation but changed his mind when he realized stores had closed.
“I called 911 and told them I need to get out of here. I have no food, no cigarettes and I’m disabled. And within a couple hours, the police came and picked me up in my apartment and brought me here,” he said.
President Joe Biden on Wednesday issued a federal emergency declaration and ordered federal assistance to supplement state and local resources for firefighting efforts and relief for residents in four counties affected by the fire.
More than 15,000 firefighters were battling dozens of California blazes, including another monstrous blaze, the Dixie Fire about 65 miles (105 kilometers) north. It is the second-largest wildfire in state history at about 1,340 square miles (3,480 square kilometers).
The weeks-old fire was 55% contained. As of Thursday, officials said it had destroyed 688 homes, eight multi-unit residences, 139 commercial properties and hundreds of minor structures.
Har reported from San Francisco. Associated Press writers Jocelyn Gecker in San Francisco and John Antczak in Los Angeles contributed to this report.