SOUTH LAKE TAHOE, Calif. — Tens of thousands of people forced to flee South Lake Tahoe could begin returning to their homes after evacuation orders were downgraded to warnings Sunday afternoon as crews made progress against a massive wildfire.
The orders that sent 22,000 people in and around the resort fleeing last week were reduced to warnings as the fire virtually stalled a few scant few miles from the forest areas straddling the California-Nevada border.
California Highway Patrol officers began taking down roadblocks on State Route 50 at Stateline, Nevada, KCRA-TV reported. Members of the National Guard who had helped on the fire had left the area.
The threat from the Caldor Fire hasn’t entirely vanished but downgrading to a warning meant those who wish could return to their homes in what had been a smoke-choked ghost town instead of a thriving Labor Day getaway location.
“So far it hasn’t been a mad rush of cars,” South Lake Tahoe Fire Chief Clive Savacool said at an evening briefing. “We’re happy to see that people are slowly trickling in, just because the city does need time to get ready.”
Savacool said officials hoped to have the local hospital emergency room open within 24 hours and said paramedics were staffing fire engines for emergency medical care.
However, he said people with health problems might want to consider staying away because of the smoky air.
People who do return should have enough medication and groceries and a full gas tank in order to be self-sufficient, Savacool said.
Law enforcement was still patrolling so “your home will still be safe,” Savacool said.
However, authorities also warned that in the absence of humans, bears had gone to town, spreading trash everywhere that must be picked up.
“The delicate balance between humans and bears has been upset,” and anyone who thinks a bear may have entered their home should call law enforcement, El Dorado County sheriff’s Sgt. Simon Brown said.
Mandatory evacuation orders on the Nevada side of the state line were lifted Saturday, although Douglas County authorities urged residents to stay alert, saying the fire still has the potential to threaten homes.
The wind-driven fire, which at its peak had burned as much as 1,000 acres an hour in the northern Sierra Nevada, was mainly held within current containment lines overnight and was now 43% contained, according to Cal Fire.
Most of the western and southern sides of the fire had been corralled, although some areas still were off-limits.
No homes had been lost on the eastern side of the fire nearest to the lake and crews managed to carve more fire line along one edge of a fiery finger, which hadn’t moved east, Tim Ernst, a fire operations chief, said at a morning briefing.
“Everything has held real well” despite some flareups among timber and some hot spots in the west and southeastern sections of the nearly 340-square-mile blaze, Ernst said.
Winds that drove the flames through tinder-dry trees, grass and granite outcroppings eased in recent days, and fire crews were able to double down on bulldozing, burning or hacking out fire lines.
The fire that began on Aug. 14 has destroyed more than 700 homes, razed much of small hamlet of Grizzly Flats and injured nine firefighters and civilians, Cal Fire reported.
California and much of the U.S. West have seen dozens of wildfires in the past two months as the drought-stricken region sweltered under hot, dry weather and winds drove flames through bone-dry vegetation.
In California, nearly 14,500 firefighters were battling 13 large, active fires. Since the year began, more than 7,000 wildfires have devoured 3,000 square miles, Cal Fire said.
No deaths had been reported specifically from the fires. However, authorities said two people assigned to fire-related duties died from illness this week, officials said.
Marcus Pacheco, an assistant fire engine operator for Lassen National Forest with 30 years of experience, died on Thursday. He was assigned to the Dixie Fire burning north of the Caldor Fire, authorities said.
Other details weren’t immediately released.
The Dixie Fire began in mid-July in the northern Sierra Nevada and is the second-largest wildfire in recorded state history. It has burned nearly 1,400 square miles (3,625 square kilometers) in five counties and three national parks and forests, according to Cal Fire.
A retired firefighter who was hired to help with the French Fire died from complications of COVID-19, authorities said.
He was identified as Allen Johnson.
“Our team, the firefighting community and the world lost a great friend, mentor, teacher and comrade last night,” said a Facebook posting last Wednesday from California Interagency Incident Management Team 14.
The French Fire in Kern County was 52% contained after burning about 41 square miles.
Fire concerns have shut down all national forests in the state.
California has experienced increasingly larger and deadlier wildfires in recent years as climate change has made the West much warmer and drier over the past 30 years. Scientists have said weather will continue to be more extreme and wildfires more frequent, destructive and unpredictable.