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Massive Caldor Fire Continues To Threaten Biggest City On California's Lake Tahoe

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

It's another tense day in northern California as firefighters struggle to keep the massive Caldor Fire from reaching the biggest city on the shore of iconic Lake Tahoe. They caught a break when winds yesterday were not as strong as expected, but forecasters are warning that strong winds are likely well into this evening. Tens of thousands of people have been evacuated, and the fire has now burned some 200,000 acres. NPR's Eric Westervelt has the latest from South Lake Tahoe.

ERIC WESTERVELT, BYLINE: Thick smoke and ash have enveloped the eerily empty resort area of South Lake Tahoe, which is usually bustling this time of year with summer tourists. On the outskirts of the city, exhausted fire crews in the Christmas Valley area are really the last line of defense protecting South Lake Tahoe.

STEVE BARDEM: It's burning on both sides over there, and then it's burning there, that way, towards the South Tahoe Area behind us.

WESTERVELT: Pretty close.

BARDEM: Yeah.

WESTERVELT: In a forested area adjacent to cabins and homes, firefighter Steve Bartim and a wildfire strike force from Southern California are scrambling to stamp out spot fires. These are the dreaded wind-blown embers that ignite many fires that can easily grow into new blazes. Bartim is working to contain one that almost got out of control.

BARDEM: And it was burning pretty high there - 13, 14-foot flame wakes (ph). And then you get the ember cast off it. And it gets grass, and the pine needles get going. And it goes over to the houses. And that's what we're worried about.

WESTERVELT: They're worried about sparks catching the drought-stricken brush and dry pine needles surrounding the homes right across the road. That could turn this forest fire into a battle to save homes and neighborhoods. Most of these forests in the Tahoe Basin have not burned since the 1940s. The spot fires they're tackling are not mere nuisances. They're really the biggest threat to South Lake Tahoe right now, says firefighter Jesse Alexander, because they can overrun control lines and wreak havoc on any well-planned containment strategy.

JESSE ALEXANDER: I when you have a spot fire, basically your plan A might have to be go to a plan B or plan C, depending on a spot fire that's jumped across. So you can have every intention of trying to hold it to the road. And if it jumps that road due to spot fire, now you have to kind of change your overall game plan, if you're not able to pick up that spot fire.

WESTERVELT: The crews are tired. This one from LA had already spent days fighting the Monument Fire in the northwest part of the state when the call came to drive in the middle of the night to help defend Lake Tahoe. Some climate scientists and residents are asking whether the overall wildfire game plan is adequate for the extreme weather and the unremitting wildfires fueled in part by human-caused climate change. The fires are bigger, the days hotter, and the fires are coinciding with a historic drought across much of the west. This is the fifth straight year of nightmarish wildfires across California.

MARK RICHTER: This is getting to be, you know, ridiculously stupid.

WESTERVELT: Sixty-two-year-old Mark Rickter fled his mobile home in South Lake Tahoe for a Red Cross shelter near the northern part of the lake. A veteran with health problems, Rickter says he's tired of living through megafires.

RICHTER: Wind-driven fires - this is what, you know, burned Paradise. This is what's happening with the Dixie Fire. Now we have the Tamarack Fire and the Caldor Fire. So yeah, I've been scared.

WESTERVELT: Scared and wondering whether his mobile home will still be standing when the Caldor Fire is out. Meantime, as the fire moved toward the Heavenly Ski Resort on the Nevada-California line, new mandatory evacuations were ordered last night. And crews turned on the mountain's snowmaking machines, hoping that the water might help slow the blaze if it reaches its slopes. Eric Westervelt, NPR News, South Lake Tahoe. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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