- Another red flag warning Tuesday in Northern California could make conditions worse for firefighters.
- The Caldor Fire jumped Highway 89 on Monday after a mass evacuation of South Lake Tahoe.
- More evacuation orders were issued near the Dixie Fire, the state's second largest in history.
SOUTH LAKE TAHOE, Calif. — Bearing down on scenic Lake Tahoe, the Caldor Fire grew closer to the iconic tourist destination Tuesday, prompting new evacuations into Nevada after the lakeside town was ordered to leave the area the day before.
The Caldor Fire continued its trek toward Lake Tahoe, scorching homes, vacation rentals and part of a ski resort as thousands in South Lake Tahoe were told to leave the area immediately, forcing residents and tourists enjoying summer vacations on a frantic scramble east toward Nevada on Highway 50.
New evacuation orders Tuesday extended into Douglas County, Nevada, for the first time, forcing residents in communities near the southeastern edge of Lake Tahoe from their homes.
The California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection said the wildfire, which started Aug. 14, had spread through nearly 200,000 acres and as of Tuesday evening was only 18% contained.
Conditions Tuesday were expected to fan the flames further, with a red flag warning remaining in effect across the region. Wind gusts up to 35 mph and single-digit humidity could cause fires to grow rapidly, the National Weather Service said.
Fire officials Tuesday reiterated that Tuesday and Wednesday, due to the high winds and low moisture in the air, would be crucial in fighting the fire and preventing its spread further into the South Lake Tahoe area, known for its picturesque beaches, emerald-blue waters, rocky shorelines and stunning landscapes in the Sierra Nevada.
'Challenge to come back from this':Wildfire threatens to forever change clear blue waters of Lake Tahoe
Steven Volmer, a fire behavior analyst at CAL Fire, told USA TODAY in an interview the fire was moving at speeds of 200 feet per minute in areas. The rapid spread was being caused by flames in tree canopies hopping from tree to tree, allowing embers to travel a mile ahead of the fire's edge.
"It's really what is behind some of this rapid growth we've been seeing," he said. He noted that while a host of resources and fire personnel were dedicated to protecting Lake Tahoe from the blaze to redirecting the fire away, any possible timeline for it hitting the area was unclear.
"Mother nature has a way of doing her own thing," he said. "We're at her mercy when it comes to these winds."
Nearby casinos shut down Monday, a hospital was evacuated and tourists and residents jammed the streets of the typically relaxing lakeside vacation spot.
"This is a systematic evacuation, one neighborhood at a time," South Lake Tahoe police Lt. Travis Cabral said on social media.
After the evacuation orders went into effect for the city's 22,000 residents, the fire jumped Highway 89 and moved north on a ridge into Meyers in South Lake Tahoe, a USA TODAY Network reporter observed. Crews were trying to protect homes near the Christmas Valley community, just south of Lake Tahoe along Highway 89.
Timothy Pritchard, who had lived at South Lake Tahoe for 13 years, was among the first evacuees to arrive in Reno after being turned away from a Carson City shelter that reached maximum capacity.
"I’m just tired and stressed right now,” he said, crying.
The Caldor Fire is one of 83 large fires and complexes burning more than 3,900 square miles across the West, according to the National Interagency Fire Center.
Cal Fire said winds near the Caldor Fire were allowing embers to travel farther from the fire's edge and starting small blazes three-quarters of a mile from the fire line. The fire threatened containment lines established along U.S. 50, Cal Fire said.
Tim Ernst, an operations chief for Cal Fire, said much of the western section of the fire remained well-contained, and crews mainly worked to ensure no hot spots flared up. There were still parts of the line along the northeastern edge of the fire that were not contained.
Protecting structures and defending South Lake Tahoe remained the top priority for fire crews, Ernst said.
At a shelter in Carson City, Chelsea Cunningham of South Lake Tahoe said she was in shock.
"Right now, we're numb. It feels like you're in this fog and your headlights aren't working,” Cunningham said.
She said she kept hearing firefighters were doing their best to keep the fire from reaching the basin. “So you're holding on to that hope with blind optimism,” Cunningham said.
Monday, the worst-case scenario unfolded.
"I think we're still in shock, I think the reality will hit later. Especially if we go back and find out there's nothing left,” she said. "The only keeping us going is focusing on what to do next."
The fire has destroyed nearly 500 homes than 480 homes and another 184 commercial or smaller structures. At least five people have been injured, and 4,171 firefighters battled the flames, Cal Fire said. Additional teams to protect homes arrived late Monday, said fire spokesman Dominic Polito.
“Wherever there are structures, there are firefighters on the ground,” Polito said.
Lake Tahoe scenery threatened
With pristine blue waters and summer and winter activities abound, the Lake Tahoe area typically draws 15 million visitors a year.
Beyond the immediate concern for public safety and the thousands of homes at risk is the threat the fire poses to the clarity of and scenery around the world-renowned lake.
Flames enveloped hillsides around Sierra-at-Tahoe Resort, which lost some minor structures but had its main building spared. Crews used snowmaking machines to douse the ground.
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.
On the Nevada side of the border, the state's gaming control board said some resorts shut down portions of their gaming operations.
"We would presume that this could escalate over the coming hours," Nevada Gaming Control Board Analyst Michael Lawton said in an email.
The four major casinos in the area include Harrah’s Lake Tahoe, Harvey’s, Hard Rock Lake Tahoe and MontBleu Casino Resort.
Dixie Fire prompts further evacuation orders
Farther north in California around the Dixie Fire, sheriff's offices in two counties expanded evacuation orders Monday as crews tried to prevent the fire from reaching the Highway 70 corridor.
The Lassen County Sheriff's Office told more residents to evacuate as the 7-week-old fire spread east of Butte Lake in the Lassen National Forest. Near the southern section of the fire, the Plumas County Sheriff's Office told multiple communities to leave as the fire presses across the Genesee Valley and Grizzly Ridge and moves closer to Lake Davis in the Plumas National Forest.
The blaze, at more than 807,000 acres, is the second-largest wildfire in state history. It has destroyed 1,277 structures, including 685 houses, and threatens more than 13,600, according to Cal Fire. Firefighters have the flames almost 50% contained.
A red flag warning was also in effect in the area near the Dixie Fire.
Since its start July 13, the Dixie Fire has consumed about $1 billion of timber, and an additional $1 billion is threatened, according to Lassen National Forest's outlook report.
Across California, 13 large wildfires are burning. Climate change has caused wildfires in the West to grow more frequent and intense in recent years, scientists say.
The blazes caused forest officials to close all of the state's national forests to visitors for at least two weeks in hopes of helping fire crews get a handle on spiraling crises.
“We do not take this decision lightly, but this is the best choice for public safety,” said Regional Forester Jennifer Eberlien
Contributing: Brian Duggan, Amy Alonzo, Kristin Oh, Ed Komenda and David Rodriguez, Reno Gazette-Journal; Jessica Skropanic, Redding Record Searchlight; The Associated Press