SOUTH LAKE TAHOE (CBS SF) -- As the intensity of the Caldor Fire eased and containment increased to 50% Tuesday evening, the thousands of firefighters battling the massive blaze faced a new challenge -- a sweltering heat wave that sent temperatures in the Tahoe Basin soaring to near triple digits.
As those temperatures climb, the fire danger rises as the bone-dry trees and vegetation become even more susceptible to igniting.
"With the weather getting hot and drier, that should be a situation that shouts, 'watch out,'" Steven Volmer, a fire behavior specialist for Cal Fire, told the crew chiefs at their Tuesday morning briefing. "Be cautious out there and be diligent. Those spot fires are out there and have been cooking for a couple days."
Cal Fire meteorologist Mark Stubblefield said the culprit was a strong, high-pressure system stalled over eastern Nevada.
"There is a heat advisory in effect from noon today through Thursday," he told fire crew leaders at their Tuesday morning briefing.
At his final morning briefing, Cal Fire West Operations Chief Tim Ernst was optimistic that the worst days of the firefight were now over.
"We are three weeks into the fire and yesterday (Monday) was one of our best shifts yet," he said. "We didn't have any fire runs and we had very little challenging of the line any place on the fire."
He also said crews, weary after battling the blaze down Highway 50 and into the Tahoe Basin, were still very engaged in getting the fire fully contained.
"Three weeks into the incident, crews are still highly engaged," he said. "When I drove home last night, driving down Highway 88, we still had crews pulling hose into the fire line at 2 o'clock in the morning. That's a sign that everyone is definitely owning their piece of dirt."
Aside from the flames, Volmer warned crews to be very watchful for fire-weakened trees that could easily topple and injure firefighters or returning residents.
"Watch out for the fire-weakened timber," he said. "It's had fire under it for 21 days. So be real heads-up."
By Tuesday evening, the wildfire had grown to 217,007 acres and was 50% contained. Only three areas were still challenging containment: north of Wrights Lake, in the Desolation Wilderness, and near Caples Lake.
The fire has destroyed at least 776 homes, most of those in the devastated community of Grizzly Flats near where the blaze erupted on Aug. 14.
On Sunday, the containment lines were strong enough to allow the 22,000 residents evacuated from South Lake Tahoe to return home.
Connor Jones sunbathed with his dog on the otherwise empty beach at Ski Run Marina on Monday, as residents trickling back into town filled up their cars at a gas station behind him and employees of a water sports rental company docked jet skis and boats they had anchored away from the shores of Lake Tahoe to prevent them from igniting from wildfire.
He and others living in the resort city of South Lake Tahoe breathed a collective sigh of relief on Sunday when officials downgraded a mandatory evacuation order put in place a week ago to a warning.
"I figure they wouldn't take repopulation lightly and, if they made the decision to allow people to come back, then they were probably confident that they're not going to have any issues," he said.
Authorities warned residents that in the absence of humans, bears had gone to town, spreading trash.
"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.
Chirawat Mekrakseree said he had seen signs. of bears sifting through the trash at his restaurant on Lake Tahoe Boulevard, My Thai Cuisine.
Mekrakseree plans to reopen and start serving curries and noodle dishes on Wednesday but worries the tourists he depends on may not come back while the smoke lingers. And he doesn't know what to tell his staff about when business will return to normal after an already uncertain year with the pandemic, he said.
"Everybody has expenses, rent, car payments," he said as he power-washed ash off outdoor picnic tables. "They're asking me how long (until they return to work) and I can't tell them how long."
The areas impacted by Sunday's downgrade included:
- South Lake Tahoe City Limits -- From the Nevada State line west along Highway 50 to the Tahoe airport; Highway 89 from the city northwest to the city's edge at West Way Pioneer Trail from State Kine west to Al Tahoe Blvd.
- North of the City of South Lake Tahoe -- All properties on the East (lake side) of Highway 89 extending north from the city limits to Emerald Bay. All properties on both sides of Highway 89 extending North from Emerald Bay through Tahoma.
The sheriff said evacuation orders were still in effect for Fallen Leaf Lake, Christmas Valley, Meyers and North Upper Truckee.
Among the returnees were Randy and Lisa Suela.
"I'm going to tell you, no place like home!" Lisa said. "You can't show enough appreciation for how well they (the firefighters) fought this and were able to contain it from the city itself."
Randy added: "It's kind of emotional too, you know."
© Copyright 2021 CBS Broadcasting Inc. All Rights Reserved. The Associated Press contributed to this report.
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