An “unprecedented” wildfire southwest of Lake Tahoe has exploded dramatically, forcing thousands to flee their homes in late-night evacuations and prompting the emergency closure of a national forest as firefighters struggle to catch up with the blaze’s overwhelming spread.
In just four days, the Caldor Fire has charred 62,586 acres in El Dorado County, burning through the 1,200-person town of Grizzly Flats and encroaching rapidly on other small communities nestled in the Sierra foothills. At least two civilians have been injured so far.
The fire’s sudden growth took many by surprise. Linda Blalock said she knew a wildfire was burning, but when she went to bed Monday, it still seemed to be keeping its distance from her house in a rural area near Pleasant Valley. She didn’t expect sheriff’s deputies to beat on her door early that morning, yelling “Fire’s here! Fire’s coming!”
“It ran. It just exploded overnight,” she said.
She was shocked to see the fire cresting the ridge near her house, with flames so intense it looked like a tornado. By Tuesday evening, she and her 12-year-old daughter, Raven, and their cat, two dogs and chicken had evacuated to a shelter 10 miles northeast in the town of Placerville.
“We figured it was time to go,” she said.
On Wednesday, U.S. forest officials closed the entirety of the El Dorado National Forest southwest of Lake Tahoe. Caltrans also warned that portions of Highway 50 — the main route into South Lake Tahoe — could be shut down suddenly as communities from Pollock Pines to Kyburz along the fire’s northern flank were told to leave.
With one million acres burned statewide so far this year — the earliest California has ever reached that milestone — and months to go before fire season hits its traditional October peak, this year is likely to rival — or be even worse — than the nightmarish summer and fall of 2020.
“They just can’t stop these fires,” said Craig Clements, director of San Jose State University’s Fire Weather Research Lab. “It’s super dry, it’s going to burn super hot — and the more heat release from a fire, the more explosive and faster it’s going to spread.”
Changing wind directions and swirling smoke have made it “very challenging” to predict conditions, said National Weather Service meteorologist Bill Rasch. Weather officials extended a Red Flag warning for most of Northern California through 8 p.m. Thursday in anticipation of extremely dry humidity levels and forceful gusts. Winds were expected to reach about 25 mph over the Caldor Fire itself through Thursday but could top 50 mph along Northern California’s highest ridges and hilltops.
The Caldor Fire has expanded so ferociously that fire officials have struggled to estimate its size — let alone damage to homes and businesses — in real time.
El Dorado County Sheriff’s Office spokesperson Sgt. Eric Palmberg could not estimate the number of homes burned in Grizzly Flats, which marked the second Northern California town to burn after the Dixie Fire leveled the town of Greenville two weeks ago. When asked if the fire’s quick growth had proven challenging, he acknowledged that beefing up fire and law enforcement personnel “doesn’t happen over twenty minutes — it takes a couple days to get everything set up logistically, and ready.”
“Nobody is looking forward to something like this, but obviously once it happens, we put our systems in place and request aid,” he added.
Still, it was not clear how many firefighters were assigned to tackle the blaze: Just 242 people were on the scene Monday, though more had joined as of Wednesday, said Cal Fire spokesperson Chris Vestal. Several orders for more personnel and equipment remained open as Cal Fire shuffled resources between wildfires statewide.
Aside from the 662,647-acre Dixie Fire — the state’s second-biggest ever — state and federal crews are also battling the 128,613-acre Monument Fire in Trinity County and the 107,000-acre McFarland Fire in Shasta County. The Cache Fire that broke out Wednesday afternoon in Lake County quickly spread across 80 acres, threatening the town of Clearlake and prompting more evacuations. That fire was 20 percent contained as of Wednesday evening, according to Cal Fire.
Vestal said that the combination of extremely dry fuel beds and sharp winds have quickly pushed the Caldor Fire into the same pattern as Dixie and others burning across the state.
“What we’re seeing here is to be expected given the super low fuel moistures we have — they’re at a level that’s about two months ahead of schedule,” Vestal said. “The spread is not surprising, but when the fire is doubling or tripling in a single operational period, it does cause concern for us.”
Wednesday proved a slightly easier day for crews after northerly winds failed to make themselves known and a blanket of smoke quieted fire activity — “a huge help for us,” said Cal Fire Chief Eric Schwab during a 5 p.m. community update.
“What that has allowed us to do is not worry so much about structure defense, and we’ve been able to get out and scout control lines,” Schwab said.
Both the explosive speed and longevity of this year’s fires mirror what the state experienced in 2020, when California’s largest-ever August Complex burned across seven counties, according to fire expert Clements. The Dixie Fire in particular, he said, “should be pretty alarming to people.”
For more than a month, fire crews have struggled to get the upper hand on the Dixie Fire as it has spread through Butte, Plumas, Tehama and Lassen counties, challenged by unpredictable weather and difficult terrain. All week, overnight winds and low humidity have offered no relief along the fire’s western flank, with spot fires continuing to threaten containment lines. On the eastern side, flames have progressed quickly toward Kessler Peak.
It’s usually not until the month of October that the Santa Ana and Diablo winds typically pick up, spawning blazes that rival the Dixie Fire — but given the conditions of the rain-starved fuels this summer, “We are seeing these huge fires” starting much earlier in the season and lasting for weeks, Clements said.
“These fires are big on days without the wind, they’re big on days with the wind, and it leads to the idea that we’re really getting a lot of impact from the fuels,” Clements said.
Staff writer Jason Green contributed to this report.
Source: Orange County Register