SOUTH LAKE TAHOE, Calif .– The lake is no longer crystal clear and most businesses remain closed, but South Lake Tahoe is slowly, albeit cautiously, resuming life in the shadow of the devastating Caldor fire that has already destroyed 800 homes .
Firefighters remained on high alert this week as thunderstorms swept through the region this week, threatening to thwart containment efforts and slow restocking plans.
Since it broke out on August 14, the wildfire has devoured more than 218,000 acres and destroyed a total of 1,000 structures in the Sierra Nevada. It was 65% on Saturday and some 10,000 people still cannot return home.
“It’s the most tense it’s been this week,” Jaime Moore, spokesperson for the California Incident Management Team at Caldor Fire, said Thursday as he stood outside the Hard Rock. Hotel & Casino Lake Tahoe, which serves as a makeshift command center for firefighters and emergency personnel.
“We did all we could,” he added.
Across much of the area, residents posted signs and even an inflatable bear thanking firefighters and other emergency responders for protecting their homes. But palpable frustration hung in the air as community members wonder when they can resume their old lives in this quiet mountain hamlet.
“Fires have never been a thing here,” Jessie Marshall said of her hometown. “We continue to have fires and they get worse every year.”
Marshall now lives in Medford, Oregon, and returned to the area earlier this week to visit relatives, many of whom have had to evacuate or help others flee their homes. This is the second forest fire she has seen this summer. Earlier, the Bootleg Fire in southern Oregon choked the air around his current home.
On Thursday, as firefighters and members of the National Guard strolled through the lobby of the Hard Rock, Marshall was playing poker and sipping a cocktail. She was one of a small handful of people inside the casino not associated with the fire response.
About 10 minutes south of Regan Beach, retired postman George Ayers waded through the unusually murky waters of Lake Tahoe as his dog, Sonora, chased a toy a few feet away.
All around him, a thick layer of smoke camouflaged the once pristine lake with a gray and brown haze that made the water difficult to see even a few feet away.
“It is one of the most beautiful places in the world and it is not showing up today,” he said. “It breaks my heart.”
The sky turned yellow, black and red as the fire approached the lake in the early days when fire threatened the area, Ayers recalls.
“It was like the world was on fire,” he said.
Ayers is one of thousands of residents forced to leave their homes after the voracious Caldor fire swept through three counties in northern California. This week, it finally slowed down and allowed firefighters to lift or downgrade evacuation orders for many of the 43,000 people who fled their homes with just minutes to gather their belongings.
But the area is not out of danger just yet as a hazardous weather warning for fires took effect for much of blazing northern California from Thursday afternoon through Friday. As the lingering threat persisted, residents awaited both the fire and passing storms from the safety of hotel rooms, evacuation shelters or the homes of loved ones.
Statewide, nearly 15,000 firefighters have progressed on 14 major wildfires and several new smaller fires, according to the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection, or Cal Fire. They include three of the 20 largest fires on record in the state.
Crews have faced historic drought, record high temperatures and coronavirus outbreaks in fire camps. In the Caldor fire, nine emergency responders were injured, including a firefighter who suffered second and third degree burns to 20 percent of his body.
Firefighters rushed to clean up and remove fire-weakened trees on Thursday in hopes of allowing residents to return home as early as this weekend. It’s a slow and arduous process, and while residents say they are grateful for the efforts of the firefighters, many people yearn for normalcy.
Andres Delgadillo, a South Lake Tahoe resident, was forced to close his Mexican restaurant, Los Mexicanos, for a week and live with relatives in Vallejo, about three and a half hours away.
The mandatory evacuation was ordered a week before Labor Day, a generally busy weekend for his restaurant. Instead, Delgadillo shut down his business, set up a WhatsApp chat for his employees, and monitored conditions remotely.
“There were police, there were firefighters with loudspeakers in the neighborhoods,” he said. “I tried to come back for my meds but was told to stay away. “
When he returned a week later, Delgadillo had to throw away food and other perishables from his restaurant and the nearby market he also owns. Because some of his employees are still under evacuation orders, he replaces five of them.
“Fortunately this has been a very busy summer,” he said of his business. “I hope everything is going well, but you never know. We were able to put a little [money] next to.
Sean Griffins, a Meyers resident, who works for South Lake Tahoe Refuse, is one of the few residents who can access his house all day because he is considered an essential worker. On Thursday afternoon, he loaded clean laundry into his car and prepared to return to the hotel room he shares with his wife and two dogs.
“We had to clean up because the bears had a blast for a few days,” he said. “Last week there was garbage all over the street. They destroyed everything.
Hours later, firefighters reduced evacuation orders in Meyers and residents were allowed to return home.
For Ayers, who evacuated her home in nearby Christmas Valley on August 29, the waiting game is both frustrating and costly. He and his dog have been living in a hotel for almost two weeks together to keep each other company.
He had about 15 minutes to throw clothes in large garbage bags and flee his 21-year-old home. All he could think of was what was to follow.
“I’m 81 and I said, ‘Do I have to start over? ” did he declare. “I didn’t eat for three or four days until I realized I hadn’t eaten. Thank goodness for the firefighters.