UPDATE 4-Crews save California town near Lake Tahoe; wildfire rages on
Adds details on fire's progress, fatigue warning
By Fred Greaves
SOUTH LAKE TAHOE, Calif., Sept 1 (Reuters) - South Lake Tahoe stood smoke-filled and largely deserted on Wednesday after crews fought back a huge, wind-driven wildfire, leaving the popular California resort town unscathed as the flames crept toward Nevada.
The Caldor fire, burning since mid-August in the Sierra Nevada range, still threatened homes and businesses near Lake Tahoe, abetted by gusty, 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 after the blaze unexpectedly crested a high ridgeline and swept downslope toward populated areas in the lake basin that straddles the California-Nevada border.
Hunter said the wind direction late on Tuesday and overnight through Wednesday morning helped push flames farther to the northeast rather than straight north toward Tahoe.
"There was a massive amount of heavy-equipment work and structure-protection work along those neighborhoods," he added.
The smaller, unincorporated village of Meyers - a former trading post and onetime Pony Express station a few miles away - was likewise spared, said California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection (Cal Fire) spokesman Henry Herrera.
"We're not out of the woods yet," Herrera added, but crews managed overnight to "keep the fire outside those communities and away from homes."
Firefighters also got help on 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.
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 has forced an estimated 50,000 people to flee and laid waste to at least 729 structures, most of them single-family dwellings, while 34,800 more buildings were listed as threatened throughout the fire zone, Cal Fire said.
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.
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 miles per hour (72 kph) and extremely low humidity for the Tahoe area through Wednesday night.
As the fire got closer to the Nevada state line, officials expanded the area under evacuation orders to include more of California's sparsely populated Alpine County, on the border.
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, 47, a hip-hop skate performer and instructor, fled her South Lake Tahoe apartment late on Sunday.
The smell of smoke hung in the air in Carson City, the Nevada state capital, about 30 miles (48 km) 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.
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.
During an operational briefing for firefighting personnel on Wednesday, the team's safety officer warned that "fatigue can and will set in," and urged crews to "pace" themselves for what remained a long, arduous battle.
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, California; Additional reporting by Sharon Bernstein in Carson City, Nevada; Writing and additional reporting by Steve Gorman in Los Angeles; Editing by David Gregorio and Peter Cooney)