UPDATE 2-Gusty winds, bone-dry conditions fuel California fire near Lake Tahoe
Adds latest details on fire activity; new byline, changes dateline, previous CARSON CITY
By Fred Greaves
SOUTH LAKE TAHOE, Calif., Sept 1 (Reuters) - The California resort town of South Lake Tahoe stood smoke-filled and largely deserted on Wednesday, but was otherwise unscathed thanks to crews fighting a huge wildfire.
The Caldor fire, burning since mid-August in the Sierra Nevada range, still threatened homes and businesses near Lake Tahoe as the blaze crept toward the Nevada state line abetted by gusty winds and bone-dry conditions.
"We steered the fire away" from South Lake Tahoe, Jason Hunter, a spokesman for the Caldor incident command, told Reuters by telephone. The town's 22,000 residents had been ordered to evacuate on Monday.
Hunter said the wind helped push the flames further east rather than directly toward populated areas.
"There was a massive amount of heavy-equipment work and structure-protection work along those neighborhoods," he added.
At the nearby Heavenly Mountain Resort ski area, snow-making machines were used to coat the terrain with water, officials told the San Jose Mercury News.
In all, Caldor forced an estimated 50,000 people to flee, according to the 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 drought-parched timber, some 4,700 acres (1,900 hectares) more than reported the night before.
Ground crews hacking away unburned vegetation with bulldozers and hand tools had carved containment lines around 20% of the fire's perimeter as of Wednesday, Cal Fire said, up from 15% containment on Tuesday morning.
Firefighters got help Wednesday morning from an atmospheric inversion layer that settled over the Tahoe area overnight, trapping smoke close to the ground and tamping down flames at lower elevations, officials said.
The Caldor fire was 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.
The National Weather Service posted a red-flag warning for dangerously gusty winds of up to 45 mph and extremely low humidity for the Tahoe area through Wednesday night.
Evacuations that had been ordered in and around South Lake Tahoe remained in effect. Authorities across the state line in Douglas County, Nevada, warned residents to be ready to flee at a moment's notice.
RECREATION CENTER INTO A SHELTER
“This thing is just unstoppable,” evacuee Lee England said on Tuesday, gazing at a U.S. Forest Service map outside a shelter the Red Cross set up at a recreation center in Carson City, Nevada. England fled her South Lake Tahoe apartment late on Sunday.
The smell of smoke hung in the air in Carson City, about 30 miles east of South Lake Tahoe. When a bit of ash fell on the back of England’s Boston terrier, Bon Bon, she bent and gently plucked the gray fleck from the black and white fur.
Before leaving, the 47-year-old hip hop skate performer and instructor looked in the distance hopefully for rainclouds.
“It was only wishful thinking that it was rain,” she said. “It was smoke.”
As of Wednesday the Caldor fire had destroyed at least 729 structures, most of them single-family homes, with 34,800 more buildings considered threatened, Cal Fire said. Nearly 4,200 personnel and a squadron of over two dozen water-dropping helicopters were assigned to the blaze, whose cause remained under investigation.
No deaths have been reported. Three firefighters and two civilians were injured in recent days.
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 firefighting forces and equipment dangerously thin. Cal Fire and U.S. Forest Service officials have described ferocious fire behavior across the region as unprecedented.
(Reporting by Fred Greaves in South Lake Tahoe; Additional reporting by Sharon Bernstein in Carson City, Nevada; Writing and additional reporting by Steve Gorman in Los Angeles; Editing by Donna Bryson, Kim Coghill and David Gregorio)