South Lake Tahoe, California, USA — At least 165 structures were destroyedand as many as 500 more were threatened after a wind-whipped wildfire broke outSunday afternoon just outside of South Lake Tahoe, authorities said.
By late Sunday evening the fast-moving fire was threatening the western boundary of the city and had burned 2,000 acres of heavily wooded, parched terrain just west and south of it. The unincorporated area is between U.S. Highway 50 and the popular Fallen Leaf Lake below the slopes of Mount Tallac.
Officials said about 1,000 people were evacuated from communities near the fire. Some residents went to two evacuation centers in South Lake Tahoe, while others went to the homes of friends and the many hotels in the area. No injuries were reported.
“It’s like a 100-foot wall of flame that’s marching through the forest,” said Leona Allen, communications supervisor of the dispatch center for South Lake Tahoe’s fire and police departments. “It’s thick with smoke. You can’t see your hand. You can’t see anything across the street.
“This is the largest fire we have had in the basin since I was born here in 1960, and this is probably the worst tragedy I have ever experienced in my life,” added Allen, whose own home was among those destroyed.
It was not clear how the fire started, but there were no thunderstorms or lightning reported at the lake Sunday. Snowfall this past winter was well below average. Most of the land surrounding South Lake Tahoe is in the U.S. Forest Service’s Tahoe Basin Management Unit, which is heavily covered by pine forests.
Winds began to subside and temperatures dropped sharply late Sunday. That provided a measure of help to firefighters who were battling to stop the blaze that by nightfall had begun to move into the city limits. Forest service officials said that flights were suspended at nightfall and would resume at 7 a.m. today.
“If we’re going to get a handle on it, we need to do it now,” Allensaid. She added that the fire remained completely uncontained as of 10:30 p.m.
Late Sunday night, the smoke was visible for miles by the light of a bighalf-moon. There was a glow all along a half-mile of ridgetop from Emerald Bay,several miles west of town.
In South Lake Tahoe, a quarter-mile down from the ridgeline, neighbors were outnear midnight watching the hill as if it were the Fourth of July. There was afiretruck in nearly every driveway, as firefighters braced for the long nightahead. Ash fluttered down like a light snow.
One official said the flames spread quickly even before the fire was reportedaround 2:10 p.m., and they were at a loss to determine precisely where the blazebegan.
Allen said most of the area burned was west of Highway 50. Officials said 400firefighters had arrived by late Sunday night to battle the blaze.
In addition to losing her own home, Allen said her father’s home was destroyed.
“This year we knew something was going to hit,” she said, citing theparched terrain. “When you kick in the kind of wind we had today, the firedanger was huge.”
Still, Allen said she felt thankful to be safe. Her home for the last nine yearswas just “stuff.”
“We’re over it,” she said of the damage. “Our job right now is tohelp out the rest of the community and try to stop anyone else from losing theirhouses.”
Thea Murdock, who drove past the fire with her two children, said orange cloudsblocked the sky as drivers veered around clogged traffic on Highway 50, tryingto get to homes in nearby Meyers and other towns.
“The smoke was really bad,” said Murdock, who said that her childrenBrigitte, 11, and McKain, 8, were terrified in the chaotic scene. “We sawterrible flames, trees on fire, all lit up like candles.”
Highway 50 was later closed between South Lake Tahoe and Pollack Pines, cuttingoff the main route to Sacramento.
Brian Brong, meteorologist with the National Weather Service in Reno, said windgusts of up to 30 mph pushed the fire from the south for most of the day. By 7p.m., he said, the winds had slowed to about 12 mph, and temperatures wereexpected to dip into the 30s overnight. Moderate winds in the opposite directionwere expected today. Brong said it rains about 15 days each summer but that norain was expected this week.