STATELINE, Nevada (CBS SF) -- Evacuation warnings were expanded in Alpine County Wednesday as the huge Caldor Fire advanced, pushed by strengthening afternoon winds tossing ember clouds well ahead of the control lines and igniting spot fires.
Hundreds of firefighters were battling the wildfire near the Kirkwood ski resort, on the eastern edge approaching the Heavenly Valley ski resort and the Nevada state line, and near Wrights Lake off Highway 50.
Cal Fire said Wednesday afternoon evacuation warnings were expanded in Alpine County to include:
- The area from Picketts Junction south on Highway 88 to Forestdale Road.
- Northeast to Hawkins Peak to the Highway 88/Highway 89 junction at Woodfords.
- East on Highway 88 to the CA/NV state line.
- NW along the Alpine County line to Fay-Luther Canyon.
Evacuation orders remained in effect for:
- The area from Picketts Junction, north on Highway 89 to the Alpine/El Dorado county line.
- NE along the Alpine/El Dorado county line to the CA/NV state line.
- SE along the Alpine County line to Fay-Luther Canyon.
- SW along Fay- Luther Canyon to Horse Thief Canyon to Picketts Junct.
As of Cal Fire's Wednesday evening update, the Caldor Fire had burned 207,931 acres and was 23% contained.
The containment on the fire was mostly along the western edge of the fire -- a nearly two-hour drive from South Lake Tahoe -- where the massive blaze ignited on Aug. 14. The nearby community of Grizzly Flats was devastated as hundreds of homes were destroyed.
Some evacuations for the areas of Pollock Pines and Camino on the north side of Highway 50 were lifted. This includes everything west of Sly Park, south of Slab Creek and east of Larsen Drive and Snow Road.
"Currently, the fire has not entered the Kirkwood proper," said U.S. Forest Service Operation Chief Beale Monday said in a Wednesday afternoon briefing. "The winds are real squirrelly. We are still getting continuous spot fires that are threatening the value at risk (homes) down in Kirkwood. We have a lot of people and resources in place to try to prevent any damage into Kirkwood itself."
"Probably one of our major concerns is this Kirkwood area and where the Kirkwood ski area is," said Cal Fire Assistant Chief Tim Ernst. "The fire is currently hung up right on the ridge outside of Kirkwood, so that's something we'll be looking at today as one of our priorities."
Residents in Douglas County surrounding the Kingsbury Grade in neighboring Nevada were forced to flee their homes Tuesday evening and the giant Heavenly Valley snowmaking machines were engaged, sending thousands of gallons of water raining down on the resort to dampen grounds and elevate humidity levels as the flames approached.
A small army of firefighters were gathered at the resort to battle the advancing flames and dozer lines were being edged into the mountainous terrain to present an additional barrier. Overhead, Air Force planes equipped with infrared cameras were locating hot spots through the heavy ground smoke and directing the firefight.
"We want to get the (defensive) plan in place and everything built in place so we can hold it here," said Cal Fire's Jed Gaines.
While winds were relatively calm overnight as a smoke inversion layer moved in around midnight, gusts had increased to 20-30 mph just before daybreak. A Red Flag Fire Warning for gusty winds and bone-dry humidity was not set to expire until 11 p.m. Wednesday.
"The wind regime you saw yesterday will continue today," Cal Fire meteorologist Jim Dudley told crews at the Wednesday morning briefing. "Where it was gusty on the ridges, where you saw the swirling, erratic wind conditions, you are going to see that again today. The speeds may be a little less than yesterday, but I don't want to dismiss the fact were are going to have the swirling, gusty winds."
As the winds picked up, spot fires become a challenge sending clouds of embers soaring over control efforts. The embercast helped the blaze leap over Christmas Valley and continue its march northeast.
"With those winds, as it ran through the forest, it created what's called an active crown fire run where the fire actually goes from tree-top to tree-top," said Cal Fire's Steven Volmer, the fire behavior analyst. "When it does that, the embercast that it throws out is going over a mile in distance. So that's what propagating the spread of the fire right now."
"Those embers are landing in the very old, very dense fuels that are out there in the fire environment," he continued. "The area has not seen fire activity since before 1940 so we are seeing a lot of dense woodland."
Fire crews have managed to save dozens of homes in Christmas Valley and Pioneer Trail areas, diverting what could have been a far more destructive path with fire breaks.
With the possibility of strong winds continuing until the current Red Flag Warning expires at 11 p.m. Wednesday night, one of the main focuses for CalFire has been to protect the homes close to the fire lines.
Will Cottrell lives in Christmas Valley and decided not to evacuate Monday night when the fire jumped Highway 89. Flames surrounding his home with spot fires breaking out right over his back fence.
"It was a little sparky, no question about that," said Cottrell. "If you were to look around on the ground, you'll see black everywhere."
Within that charred area, hot spots were still smoldering Wednesday as a Cal Fire crew from Santa Clara worked to douse those areas.
Crew members were using hand tools to break apart smoldering stumps and logs before drenching them with water.
Dozens of strike teams were doing this type of structure defense work Wednesday in neighborhoods in Christmas Valley and along Pioneer Trail, trying to keep flames from flaring up and possibly throwing embers onto nearby homes.
"There's a lot of work to be done down here, a lot of threats still down here with these small spot fires that are still burning down here," said Cal Fire crew member Dave Lauchner.
It's gritty, dirty hard work, but it's important.
"At the end of the day, you can kind of see what you've accomplished and you can get the little feel of like, I actually did something today," said Jack Roberts with the Cal Fire Santa Clara Unit.
On Tuesday, embers also ignited a spot fire beyond the control lines along Highway 50 near Echo Summit.
"The control line we had along Wrights Lake Road tying it into the Desolation Wilderness, the fire spotted outside that control line," said Cal Fire Operation Chief Erich Schwab at the Tuesday night briefing. "It's making pretty substantial runs direct to the east toward Wrights Lake."
While much of the media attention is on the battle in the South Lake Tahoe area, the blaze continued to extract a destructive toll along Highway 50. Islands of unburned vegetation continued to ignite and char nearby cabins.
"I just rode through there," Schwab said. "There's a lot of pockets of unburned islands that are burning out that are still closing in on cabins that are in there, so we are in there actively firefighting and defending structures," he said. "I did see some damage to structures. The fire burned through there extremely fast, extremely hot. We did the best that we could."
There was an additional challenge for firefighters Tuesday -- COVID. Cal Fire said they had the equivalent of a strike team in firefighters pulled from the lines, suffering from COVID infections.
Nearly 4,000 firefighters are working to contain the Caldor Fire. They're now getting help from more than a thousand members of the California National Guard.
At Stateline along the border between Nevada and South Lake Tahoe, time is running out for some evacuees staying at area hotels as the local firefight stretches on with no end in sight.
Janet Stout has been staying at the Hard Rock Casino since being evacuated from her home. But she only booked three nights and can't extend her stay.
With evacuation orders for her and 50,000 other residents still in effect for the Caldor Fire, she luckily has a friend she can stay with. But she knows many of her neighbors do not.
"It's just a feeling I've never had before," sighed Stout. "I can't feel their pain, but I'm so empathetic towards them. I'm going to call my other friend and see if I can bring a couple of people with me."
The firefighters battling to save homes in the Tahoe Basin are staying at the casino hotels, which aren't taking any more new reservations so they can provide rooms for the people trying to save the town.
"They're exhausted when they get there, but they are…," Stout trailed off, at a loss for words. "Thank you!"
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