SOUTH LAKE TAHOE, Calif - Fire crews took advantage of decreasing winds to battle a California wildfire near popular Lake Tahoe and were even able to allow some people back to their homes but dry weather and a weekend warming trend meant the battle was far from over.
The Caldor Fire remained only a few miles from South Lake Tahoe, which was emptied of 22,000 residents days ago, along with casinos and shops across the state line in Nevada.
The wind-driven fire that began Aug. 14 had raged through densely forested, craggy areas and still threatened more than 30,000 homes, businesses and other buildings ranging from cabins to ski resorts.
But there was optimism and progress as winds eased on the fire’s western flank while in the northeast, despite gusty ridgetop winds, firefighters with bulldozers and shovels were steadily hacking out fire lines or burning away vegetation to box in the flames before they reached Tahoe.
"In the valleys we’re doing plenty of work," fire information officer Marco Rodriguez said. "The crews are working and they’re doing controlled fires ... to try to make those containment lines a little bit stronger."
Residents who were forced to flee South Lake Tahoe earlier this week remained evacuated along with people across the state line in Douglas County, Nevada.
The resort can easily accommodate 100,000 people on a busy weekend but on Thursday, just before the Labor Day weekend, it was eerily empty.
Yet after days of flames threatening to engulf the resort at any moment, any respite was welcome.
"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.
"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."
Russ Crupi, who two days ago was arranging sprinklers around his mobile home park in South Lake Tahoe just miles from the fire line, had turned off the water for now, feeling confident his neighborhood was no longer under threat. The nearby mountains, cloaked in smoke for most of the week, had become visible.
"I’m just happy they stopped it. It looked close," he said.
Farther west, evacuation orders were lifted or downgraded to warnings in several areas of El Dorado County.
Friday’s forecast called for lighter winds but also extremely dry daytime weather, with a warming trend through the weekend as high pressure builds over the West, fire officials said.
The Caldor Fire spanned some 330 square miles and was 27% contained. Its northeast tip was about 3 miles (5 kilometers) south of South Lake Tahoe.
More than 15,000 firefighters were battling dozens of California blazes that have destroyed at least 1,500 homes. One blaze, the Dixie Fire, was about 65 miles north of the Caldor Fire. It is the second-largest wildfire in state history at about 1,350 square miles and is 55% contained.
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.
Har reported from San Francisco. Associated Press writers Jocelyn Gecker in San Francisco and John Antczak in Los Angeles contributed to this report. Metz is a corps member for the Associated Press/Report for America Statehouse News Initiative. Report for America is a nonprofit national service program that places journalists in local newsrooms to report on undercovered issues.