UPDATE 1-Gusty winds, bone-dry conditions fuel California fire near Lake Tahoe
New throughout, adds details
By Sharon Bernstein
CARSON CITY, Nev., Sept 1 (Reuters) - Gusty winds and bone-dry conditions challenged firefighters on Wednesday as they tried to slow the spread of a raging wildfire that threatened homes and businesses near Lake Tahoe, a popular resort destination in California's Sierra Nevada range.
The Caldor fire, burning since mid-August in the mountains east of the state capital, Sacramento, has forced an estimated 50,000 people to flee the area, according to a California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection (Cal Fire).
As of Wednesday morning, the fire had charred more than 204,000 acres (82,500 hectares) of tinder-dry forest, some 4,700 acres (1,900 hectares) more than the day before. Firefighters had managed to carve containment lines around just 20% of its perimeter, Cal Fire said.
Officials told the Mercury News in San Jose on Wednesday that winds were pushing the fire toward the Heavenly Mountain Resort, where they were using its snow-making machines to coat the terrain with water.
The Caldor fire is among nearly two dozen raging across California and scores of others elsewhere in the West, during a summer fire season shaping up as one of the most destructive on record. The blazes have been stoked by extremely hot, dry conditions that experts say are symptomatic of climate change.
A National Weather Service red-flag warning for dangerously gusty winds of up to 45 miles (72 km) per hour and extremely low humidity was posted for the Tahoe area through Wednesday night.
RECREATION CENTER INTO A SHELTER
Red Cross officials who have turned a Carson City recreation center into a shelter for evacuees. Cots were placed at COVID-safe distances from each other on the gym floor, each topped with a soft white blanket. Urns of coffee wait at the entrance.
Forest Service staff stood at the door of the rec center, pointing to a poster-sized map on an easel as they answered questions from evacuees about where the fire was in relation to people’s homes.
“This thing is just unstoppable,” Lee England, who fled her South Lake Tahoe apartment late Sunday, said as she looked at the Forest Service map outside the Carson City rec center Tuesday.
The smell of smoke hung in the air in Carson City. When ash fell on the back of England’s Boston terrier Bon Bon, she bent and gently plucked the gray fleck from the dog’s black and white fur.
Before leaving, the 47-year-old hip hop skate performer and instructor initially thought – or hoped - she was seeing a storm in the distance.
“It was only wishful thinking that it was rain,” she said. “It was smoke.”
The Caldor fire had destroyed at least 729 structures as of Wednesday, most of them single-family homes, with 34,800 more buildings considered threatened, Cal Fire said.
No deaths have been reported. Three firefighters and two civilians were injured in recent days.
As of Wednesday, nearly 4,200 personnel and a squadron of over two dozen water-dropping helicopters were assigned to the blaze, whose cause remained under investigation.
More than 6,800 wildfires large and small have blackened an estimated 1.7 million acres (689,000 hectares) within California alone this season, stretching available firefighting forces and equipment dangerously thin. Cal Fire and U.S. Forest Service officials have described ferocious fire behavior seen across the region as unprecedented.
(Reporting by Sharon Bernstein in Carson City, Nevada; Additional reporting by Steve Gorman in Los Angeles; Editing by Donna Bryson, Kim Coghill and David Gregorio)