Raging wildfire inches closer to Lake Tahoe

Thick smoke in a section of the Caldor fire in eastern California.

A raging wildfire continues to spread toward Lake Tahoe, a popular resort region that draws approximately 15 million visitors a year, according to the Tahoe Fund website. The area is famous for its beautiful waters, sandy beaches, remote mountain trails and world-class ski resorts.

The Caldor Fire in eastern California grew to almost 200,000 acres Tuesday evening, prompting the evacuation of 22,000 residents in South Lake Tahoe and the partial shutdown of casinos in nearby Stateline, Nevada. The fire is only 18% contained, according to InciWeb.

Beyond the immediate concern for public safety and the thousands of homes at risk is the threat the fire poses to the air quality and scenery around the world-renowned lake. 

The lake straddles the California-Nevada line high in the Sierra Nevada. The top end is about 35 miles south of Reno, Nevada. The lower end, which is near the fire, is about 100 miles east of Sacramento, California.

(Map: FreightWaves SONAR Critical Events. Caldor fire, Sep.1, 2021. To learn more about FreightWaves SONAR, click here.)

“Lake Tahoe is one of the more unique gems of lakes on the planet,” Sudeep Chandra, a biology professor and director of the Global Water Center at the University of Nevada, Reno, told USA Today.

At more than 1,600 feet deep, Tahoe is among the largest lakes in the country. It’s about 22 miles long with more than 70 miles of shore, some of which is undeveloped and protected for outdoor recreation. Some of it is tightly packed with housing, gift shops and towering hotel casinos.

South Lake Tahoe, a California city on the south shore, is the most populous area within the basin. It’s also the area the Caldor fire is encroaching upon as it moves north. The Nevada side attracts people with its casinos. The four on the south end of the lake — Harrah’s Lake Tahoe, Harvey’s, Hard Rock Lake Tahoe and Montbleu Casino Resort — were limiting gambling Monday.

The Caldor fire’s flames have enveloped hillsides around Sierra-at-Tahoe Resort. Webcam footage appeared to show firefighters using a lift at Kirkwood Mountain Resort in their fight to keep the flames at bay.

Heavenly Ski Resort straddles the state line, with lifts and trails in both states. Monday’s evacuation orders included the area around its California operations.

The end of summer is usually among the busiest tourism periods for Lake Tahoe, and tourism is the key industry for the region. The entire basin’s annual economy is about $5 billion, with visitor services making up about 62% of that, according to the Lake Tahoe Visitors Authority. But occupancy for Tahoe-area hotels already fell to below 30% in the past week because smoke from the fires drove visitors away. That was before officials asked travelers to avoid the area.

The weather will likely make it difficult for crews to contain and suppress the fire. The National Weather Service has red flag warnings posted in the Caldor fire area. The air will stay extremely dry, and wind gusts of 35 to 45 mph from the southwest will blow more smoke toward Lake Tahoe, and may spread the fire further in that direction.

Closed lanes

U.S. Highway 50 from Pollock Pines, California, to the California-Nevada line
U.S. Highway 50 at Sawmill Road
U.S. Highway 50 at Elks Club Drive
California Route 88 from Omo Ranch Road to California Route 89
Pioneer Trail at Elks Club
Fallen Leaf at Tahoe Mountain

Click here for more FreightWaves articles by Nick Austin.

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