SOUTH LAKE TAHOE, Calif. — Better weather on Thursday helped the battle against a huge California forest fire threatening communities around Lake Tahoe, but commanders warned firefighters to be prepared for dangers that still pose a risk.
Strong winds that drove the Caldor Fire east through high elevations of the Sierra Nevada for days faded after forcing thousands of people to flee. But very localized gusts were likely and the forest remained extremely dry even though humidity levels improved slightly in the fire zone, officials said at a briefing.
“We lost the winds aloft,” fire incident meteorologist Jim Dudley said. “It’s a good day today to not have gusty winds up on the ridges. What we are going to have are terrain-driven winds” that happen as the sun heats the ground.
The Caldor Fire spanned more than 328 square miles (849 square kilometers) and was 25% contained early Thursday. Its northeast tip was just south of the city of South Lake Tahoe and nearing the California state line with Nevada, where a casino and hotel district sits near the shoreline and housing developments extend into the forest.
Fire crews from around the country were joining the fight against the fire, which broke out on Aug. 14.
As of Thursday, officials reported that 622 homes, 12 commercial properties and 177 minor structures were destroyed — but the tally is incomplete because many areas that burned are not safe for counts to be conducted.
Climate change has made the West much warmer and drier over the past 30 years and will continue to make weather more extreme and wildfires more frequent, destructive and unpredictable, scientists have said.
The Caldor Fire, named after the road where it started, threatened at least 33,000 more homes and structures. On Wednesday, firefighters were ferried by boat to protect cabins at Echo Lake, a few miles south of Tahoe.
Heavenly Mountain Resort, the Lake Tahoe region’s largest ski area, was being used as a staging area by firefighters. The resort also brought out its big guns — snow-making devices that were being used to hose down buildings.
One spur of the fire was about 3 miles (5 kilometers) south of the South Lake Tahoe, which normally has a population of more than 20,000 but is largely evacuated, and was heading northeast toward the California-Nevada state line, authorities said.
Crews worked to keep flames away from the area’s urban communities, where houses sit close tog each other and shopping centers, hotels and other structures could provide even more fuel for the fire.
Thick smoke has enveloped South Lake Tahoe, which normally be swarming with tourists enjoying the end of summer and the upcoming Labor Day weekend.
After casinos and stores closed on the Nevada side of Lake Tahoe on Wednesday morning, evacuation holdouts who didn’t have cars lined up outside the Montbleu resort and casino in Stateline, waiting for a bus to take them to Reno.
Kevin O’Connell, a disabled plumber and South Lake Tahoe resident wearing ski goggles to protect his eyes from blowing ash, had planned on staying and riding out the evacuation order in Stateline but found out that 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, with help from out-of-state crews, were battling dozens of California blazes, including another monstrous blaze in the same area.
Maj. Gen. David Baldwin, adjutant general of California, said the state has also deployed more than 1,000 National Guard soldiers, airmen and sailors and that 10 other states have sent around 1,250 additional Guard members.
Many of the guard units are providing air support, including 23 aircraft, some equipped with water buckets and others with systems that can drop fire retardant.
About 65 miles (105 kilometers) north of the Lake Tahoe-area blaze, the Dixie Fire is the second-largest wildfire in state history at about 1,343 square miles (3,478 square kilometers).
The weeks-old fire was 55% contained and as of Thursday, officials said it had destroyed 688 homes, eight multi-unit residences, 139 commercial properties and hundreds of minor structures.