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Massive Wildfire Threatens Sierra at Tahoe, While Another Ski Area is Forced to Evacuate

Northern California's fast-moving Caldor Fire has burned 150,000 acres and counting, and is now encroaching on South Lake Tahoe ski areas.

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The fast-moving Caldor wildfire that has burned over 150,000 acres in California’s El Dorado County over the last two weeks made its way into the Lake Tahoe Basin over the weekend. Images from Sunday show the blaze nipping at structures and chairlifts at Sierra at Tahoe ski resort, 12 miles from the town of South Lake Tahoe, where evacuations were ordered overnight as the wind-fueled wildfire advanced.

The wildfire began August 14 just south of the town of Grizzly Flats and has spread incredibly quickly thanks to high temperatures, dry conditions, and wind gusts of up to 40 mph. These conditions are making it difficult for firefighters to wrangle it. At one point, the wildfire was reported as being almost 20 percent contained, but high winds derailed firefighters’ efforts. As of this article’s publication, containment had dropped to 14 percent, and over 600 structures have been destroyed.

Caldron Fire, Sierra-at-Tahoe
Flames and smoke surround the Easy Rider Express Chair. (Photo: Josh Edelson/AFP/Getty Images)

Sierra at Tahoe has been bracing for this for the last 10 days or so as the fire has traveled its way with no signs of slowing. Firefighters have set up shop at the resort aiming to save as much of it as possible. As of Monday morning, the damage at the ski resort was minimal, with only a maintenance shed damaged so far and all ski lifts still standing. Snow guns have been transformed into water cannons to fight the advancing fire lines and the entire resort has become a huge staging area from which Cal Fire (California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection) and the U.S. Forest Service advance their strategies to fight the blaze. 

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“I’ll take whatever I can get,” John Rice, Sierra at Tahoe’s general manager, told the Mercury News on Sunday. “We’re here together to protect this place and stop the fire coming any further than this.”

Caldron Fire, Sierra-at-Tahoe
Sierra at Tahoe’s snow cannons are being used to help fight the fires. (Photo: Josh Edelson/AFP/Getty Images)

Also impacted by the Caldor fire is Kirkwood Mountain Resort, about 35 miles by road from Sierra at Tahoe. The ski resort was evacuated on Sunday. “We are working closely with Cal Fire, the United States Forest Service fire team, the Kirkwood Fire Department, and other local organizations who have been assisting us with structure preparation and protection,” the resort posted Sunday night on its Facebook page

Kyle Smaine lives in Myers, Calif., roughly halfway between South Lake Tahoe and Kirkwood. He and his fiancée were evacuated on Sunday and are currently staying with friends on the other side of the lake.

Smaine learned to ski at Sierra at Tahoe and considers the backcountry out his back door to be his winter playground. It’s been heartbreaking to watch the fire creep so close to his beloved terrain, he says, and he’s worried about the future of the resorts impacted.

“It could be a whole different experience out there this winter,” says Smaine. “It could be the end of these resorts, especially a small independent ski area like Sierra, which might not have the ability to replace the infrastructure if there’s major damage.”

While devastating, Smaine says that none of this has been unexpected. “It’s not an ‘if’ but a ‘when,'” he says “I’ve been on edge for the last three to four summers. It’s just such hard terrain here, I don’t really know what else the fire crews can do—they can only use planes or helicopters when the visibility is ok, and they can only send hand crews out so far. I’m sure they’re doing the best they can. It’s not a fair fight.”

As the Caldor fire continues to wreak havoc, the Dixie wildfire, currently burning 100 miles away in the northernmost portion of the state, has just claimed the dubious title of second-largest wildfire in California history with 725,000 acres burned and over 1,200 structures destroyed. The Dixie fire was allegedly caused by a tree falling on power lines, whereas the Caldor fire’s origin is still under investigation. There are also around a dozen other smaller wildfires currently burning in Northern California.

Needless to say, the state is warning travelers to stay out of the region in advance of Labor Day weekend. Visit Cal Fire’s extremely informative and well-updated website for fire updates, evacuation info, and stats about all of the current wildfires; you can find Caldor Fire info here.