SOUTH LAKE TAHOE, Calif. — President Joe Biden declared an emergency in California that will allow federal assistance for the Caldor fire, which has burned hundreds of structures and is moving toward Nevada.
The fire took aim at Lake Tahoe for several days amid heavy winds. But that threat lessened as the fire moved in other directions. Officials say it remains highly dangerous, and thousands of weary firefighters are battling it on several fronts.
Crews may get a break Thursday as red flag conditions are expected to abate, according to incident meteorologist Jim Dudley. However, dry conditions and low humidity will remain persistent problems.
The fire roared to more than 200,000 acres Wednesday but stayed mostly clear of the resort town. Firefighters also managed to protect many of the homes in Christmas Valley and Meyers, both within the Tahoe basin.
Officials confirmed some damage on the outskirts of the Sierra-at-Tahoe ski resort late Wednesday night, said Assistant Chief Jamie Moore, a Los Angeles firefighter working as part of the state’s interagency effort on the Caldor fire.
“They did lose some outbuildings, but the main lodge was not damaged,” Moore said.
Yet even as officials expressed some optimism, a new possibility was looming as the head of the fire moved east toward the Nevada state line.
The eastern flank of the fire was a concern, officials said.
“This is where we have a lot of focus,” Cal Fire spokesman Beale Monday said. “All of our resource focus on this side is all broken up into structure protection, and trying to skirt that fire away from the valuables at risk and the communities down here.”
Monday said crews were laying bulldozer lines on the east side of Pioneer Trail and on the west side of Truckee Drive in an effort to keep flames away from South Lake Tahoe. Crews were also removing brush and debris from the side of the highways in the event that they have to ignite a backfire, he said.
Officials were considering opportunities to build a “catcher’s mitt” beyond the immediate fire lines and into Nevada to stop the fire’s march east, he said.
At Heavenly ski resort, near the state border, containment lines made with bulldozers appeared to be keeping the fire at bay. However, on the northern side of the wildfire flames remained active near the picturesque Desolation Wilderness and Wrights Lake. To the south, plumes of smoke rose behind Kirkwood Mountain ski resort as officials used snow spreaders to wet down the area. Fire engines were parked throughout the community, poised to defend dozens of homes as well as resort property.
As of Wednesday night, the fire was about five miles from the state line, Moore said.
“I’d be surprised if it doesn’t make it to Nevada in the next day or so,” said Craig Clements, a professor of meteorology and director of the Wildfire Interdisciplinary Research Center at San Jose State University.
Clements’ team used dynamic computer modeling to forecast the fire’s likely behavior. The model shows the fire reaching Nevada late Wednesday night or early Thursday, he said.
“This is a difficult fire to forecast,” Clements said, noting that it is burning in complex terrain with very dry vegetation. “But our model shows it’s going to keep going east.”
Fire behavior analyst Steven Volmer said, given the hot, dry conditions in the area, the probability of an errant ember sparking a new fire was “extremely high” — above 90%. And when fires do start, they can spread at 200 feet per minute between the crowns of trees, and about 100 feet per minute on the ground, he said.
Biden’s declaration allows for federal agencies to provide relief measures in areas hit hard by the fires.