A California wildfire that would once have been considered unprecedented has yet again laid bare the havoc wreaked by climate change, this time threatening the idyllic Lake Tahoe.
Aided by high winds, the Caldor fire, which has burned about 191,000 acres as of Tuesday morning and destroyed more than 650 structures, crossed over the Sierra Nevada mountain range, putting much of the South Lake Tahoe Basin under an evacuation warning. Cal Fire Chief Thom Porter said the blaze grew by more than 20,000 acres Sunday alone — the largest growth seen in the inferno since it began Aug. 14. Overnight, the fire burned through the Sierra-at-Tahoe ski resort, where workers used snowmaker machines to stave off the flames.
By Monday morning, the entire city of South Lake Tahoe and people living in areas along the south and southwestern shore from Tahoma to the Nevada border were ordered to leave their homes immediately. With the roads to the west, north, and south closed due to the fire, evacuees streamed east into Nevada, getting stuck in bumper-to-bumper traffic as hot spots emerged in the slopes above.
Hours later, after the gridlock had cleared, spot fires continued to burn near the Kirkwood ski resort to the south and in Meyers, a town just a few miles outside of South Lake Tahoe, further north, showing the risk that the fire could continue to spread into communities. Fire officials took a moment to lay out in clear terms that while it seemed unlikely weeks ago that the blaze would dip into the basin that so many Californians hold dear, this is the new normal.
"Historically, we’ve used the terms such as anomaly, unprecedented, or extreme to describe the wildfires that we have seen burn throughout the state over the past 10 to 20 years," Cal Fire's Chris Anthony said during a press briefing. "These terms are no longer appropriate given the clear trends associated with drought, a changing climate, and unresilient forest stands. Unfortunately, these factors contribute to the resistance to control that we’re seeing with the Caldor fire."
Before now, California had never seen fires burn from one side of the Sierras to the other, said Porter, the Cal Fire chief. Then, just two weeks ago, the Dixie fire, which has burned more than 770,000 acres and is currently the state's second-largest blaze on record, crossed the mountains. Now, with the Caldor fire moving down the mountains toward South Lake Tahoe, it's happened again.
"Two times in our history and they’re both happening this month," Porter said during a briefing Monday. "We need to be really cognizant that there is fire activity happening in California that we have never seen before."
The Caldor fire, which broke out near now-leveled town of Grizzly Flats about 80 miles east of Sacramento, had been approaching the Tahoe area for days. Locals and officials had hoped the Desolation Wilderness area with its mountainous landscape and bare granite would stop the inferno from encroaching on the highly populated — and more densely vegetated — valley below. But strong winds helped push flames over the summit and carry embers over the rocky terrain and down into the basin.
By Monday evening, the fire had made its way into the Christmas Valley and Meyers area, just a few miles south of the city of South Lake Tahoe. No structures there were damaged yet, fire officials said.
"What seemed exceedingly unlikely a few weeks ago is happening," Daniel Swain, a climate scientist at UCLA and the Nature Conservancy, told BuzzFeed News.
Wildfires are inextricably linked to human-induced climate change. The planet has already warmed 2.1 degrees Fahrenheit since 1880, according to NASA, and that’s making disasters worse. In 2020, wildfires burned more than 10 million acres, including over 4.2 million acres in California — the state's largest fire season on record.
Swain said that shifts in climate have allowed fires to "elude control" even in more moderate weather conditions and spread faster "by virtue of how dry the underlying vegetation is."
A red flag warning is in effect for the northern Sierras through 11 p.m. Wednesday, with southwesterly winds forecast to reach 20 to 35 mph. On Monday, the US Forest Service announced that it would close all 20 million acres of national forests in the state through Sept. 17 because of the "wildfire crisis."
While it was difficult for officials to predict how the fire might progress as the dangerous conditions persist, Anthony said local, state, and federal agencies have spent years — and millions of dollars — preparing for this scenario. He added they would do everything they could to protect the communities in the Tahoe basin, an area that he said many, including himself, consider "a natural wonder of the world."
"These are no doubt trying times but we will get through them together," he said.