PHOTOS: Caldor Fire threatens South Lake Tahoe amid warming climate

·5 min read

The Caldor Fire continued to close in on South Lake Tahoe, Calif., on Tuesday, transforming a popular ski resort area into a hellish vision of climate change.

So far, more than 191,600 acres are burning in the Caldor Fire across the mountainous region that borders the largest alpine lake in North America, forcing widespread evacuations and leaving ski resorts to try to counter flames using water sprayed from snow-making machines. 

Flames surround a chair lift at Sierra-at-Tahoe Resort
The Caldor Fire surrounds a chairlift at the Sierra-at-Tahoe resort in Twin Bridges, Calif., on Monday. (Josh Edelson/AFP via Getty Images)

“It is imperative that residents in the impacted areas stay safe and prepare to evacuate immediately if called for by local authorities,” California Gov. Gavin Newsom said in a Monday statement. “We thank all the heroic firefighters and first responders working around the clock to combat this rapidly spreading fire and to protect local communities across California this fire season.”

The governor declared a state of emergency for Alpine, Amador and Placer counties due to the encroaching fire. As of Tuesday, just 16 percent of the blaze, which started two weeks ago, was under control. More than 3,500 firefighters had been deployed in the heavily wooded area to try to contain the flames in a year when extreme drought made worse by climate change has left much of the West especially vulnerable to wildfires.

Flames consume multiple homes
Flames consume multiple homes as the Caldor Fire pushes into South Lake Tahoe, Calif. (Josh Edelson/AFP via Getty Images)

So far, the Caldor Fire has destroyed at least 486 homes and 11 commercial properties, according to the California Department of Forestry and Fire Prevention, or Cal Fire, and the flames now surround Highway 50, the main route leading into South Lake Tahoe. An estimated 33,000 homes remain vulnerable and tens of thousands of residents have been forced to evacuate, some waiting in traffic along crowded roads for hours.

Firefighters at the Caldor Fire in Twin Bridges, Calif. (Josh Edelson/AFP via Getty Images)
Flames rip across a hillside
Flames from the Caldor Fire rip across a hillside near South Lake Tahoe. (Josh Edelson/AFP via Getty Images)

“Caldor is a real tough one for us,” Cal Fire Director Thom Porter said at a Monday news conference. “It's been burning in heavy timber in deep canyon gorge of the Highway 50 corridor between South Lake Tahoe and Sacramento, and very difficult terrain as well as conditions to fight fire.”

Flames surround the Sierra-at-Tahoe
Flames surround the Sierra-at-Tahoe resort. (Josh Edelson/AFP via Getty Images)

A fire crew sent to protect roughly 150 homes in South Lake Tahoe's Christmas Valley neighborhood confronted a daunting scene, with flames scaling the trees along a 1,000-foot rock face.

“It’s kind of surreal,” firefighter Josh Wesson told the San Jose Mercury News, “because it’s where I grew up. Everything I’ve done before is in the desert. This is different.”

Two firefighters
Firefighters create a fuel break as the Caldor Fire burns near homes. (Jae C. Hong/AP)
A snow gun sprays water
A snow gun sprays water at the Sierra-at-Tahoe resort. (Josh Edelson/AFP via Getty Images)

For weeks, hazardous smoke has blanketed much of Northern California and eastern Nevada as several wildfires have burned across both states. A thick pall of smoke now hovers over Lake Tahoe's once crystalline blue waters, and the recreation area is deserted. 

Flames surround a chair lift
Flames surround a chairlift at the Sierra-at-Tahoe resort. (Josh Edelson/AFP via Getty Images)

As of last week, Cal Fire and the U.S. Forest Service reported that 1,470,600 acres had burned this year in California, surpassing the previous record of 920,165 acres scorched in 2020. Climate change, according to numerous studies, has been a key driver of wildfires. 

“Climate change enhances the drying of organic matter in the forests (the material that burns and spreads wildfire), and has doubled the number of large fires between 1984 and 2015 in the western United States,” the Center for Climate and Energy Solutions says on its website. 

Fire engulfs a small cabin
The Caldor Fire engulfs a small cabin. (Peter DaSilva/UPI/Shutterstock)

The Caldor Fire is just the latest example of an ominous trend, fire officials say.

“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 Assistant Chief Chris Anthony said during a Monday 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.”

More photos of the Caldor Fire:

A chimney
A chimney stands amid the ruins of a house. (Josh Edelson/AFP via Getty Images)
Firefighters work to protect a home
Firefighters work to protect a home. (Josh Edelson/AFP via Getty Images)
Dustin Johnston
A unit of the U.S. Forest Service fighting the fire. (Paul Kitagaki Jr./Zuma Press Wire)
Fire crews
Crews prepare to battle the fire. (Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)


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