SIERRA-AT-TAHOE — Just three miles up the canyon from where firefighters defended the town of Strawberry from the Caldor Fire, John Rice was focused on the same job he’s had the past 29 years: Getting people up the hill at his ski resort.
“The cavalry’s coming,” he said as two bulldozers crawled up through an ashy, golden slope toward the wilderness.
With the fire pushing northeast toward the Lake Tahoe basin, the beloved Sierra-at-Tahoe resort — located between the fire’s footprint just west of Twin Bridges and Echo Summit — was transformed this weekend into a key staging ground for Cal Fire and U.S. Forest Service crews working to stop the flames before they threaten thousands of homes, vacation getaways and natural wilderness around the lakeshore.
Dozens of bulldozers, vegetation masticators, water tenders and trucks filled the central parking lot of the ski resort, waiting to ease their way up the slopes and broaden containment lines in the surrounding 2,000 acres of federal forestland.
“I’ll take whatever I can get,” Rice, the resort’s longtime general manager, said of the firefighting resources. “We’re here together to protect this place and stop the fire coming any further than this.”
But by Sunday evening, the flames had grown too close, as spot fires jumped rapidly up the canyon toward the lodge. About six miles down Highway 50, more than 100 Cal Fire, Forest Service and hotshot crews fought to keep the flames away from Echo Summit, where Cal Fire is fighting to contain the wildfire at Highway 89 before it directly threatens South Lake Tahoe.
For those who remained along Tahoe’s ashen shores, the threat of the fire waging 11 miles away was palpable. The fire has prompted thousands of people to evacuate, and hazardous smoke made air quality in the area the worst in the nation.
On Sunday night, all of Tahoe’s south shore was under evacuation warnings, and mandatory evacuation orders had expanded west through Meyers and most of Desolation Wilderness. Barton Memorial Hospital, in South Lake Tahoe, said it would evacuate all its patients, and transfer them to “regional partner facilities,” though its emergency department would remain open.
Standing between Strawberry Lodge and the town’s general store, USFS Engine Captain Mike Loeffler swiveled his head from one side of the road to the other as a swirling afternoon wind brought spot fires to both sides of the highway.
“We’re hoping we can do it on our own terms,” Loeffler said of efforts to defend homes along Highway 50.
No homes were destroyed in Strawberry this weekend, said Cal Fire Capt. Keith Wade, but the firefight was already moving northeast of the town Sunday as winds picked up. Giant plumes of gray-white smoke shot up the valley from new spot fires that smoldered in the treetops above the cliffs at Lover’s Leap.
Just after 4 p.m. at the entrance off of Highway 50 to Sierra-at-Tahoe, fire embers the size of a fingernail flew down onto the roadway as gray smoke blocked out the sun.
West of the resort, before the community of Twin Bridges, flames burned at least three homes on the north side of Highway 50 as the fire torched trees all the way down to the roadside. One cabin’s roof collapsed in on itself; another was engulfed in a swirling tornado of flames that shot straight up into the trees.
Four Cal Fire trucks and an Iron Mountain strike team positioned near Mount Ralston Road. Wind gusts strong enough to push a person over shot the flames to the northeast.
At Echo Summit, where fire crews aimed to contain the blaze before they could potentially tip into the Tahoe basin, dozens of trucks, dozers, water tenders and crews pooled in the Caltrans parking lot as the firefight moved east.
In the valley below Echo Summit, law enforcement vehicles circled the streets with sirens blaring and occasional honks, echoing up to the Highway 50 pullout hundreds of feet above.
Cal Fire spokesman Jason Hunter said that near the entrance of Sierra-at-Tahoe, located about two miles inland on a winding road, both sides of Highway 50 were on fire as of about 6:30 p.m.
The National Weather Service has issued a Red Flag warning for the Sierra Foothills through Monday in anticipation of 15-20 mph winds that could keep pushing the flames northeast. Although the tough rock of Echo Summit makes it a natural firebreak, trees lining the hillside still give flames fuel, said Cal Fire spokesman Daniel Berlant, and with high winds, granite does little to prevent embers that fly a mile past and land in dry forest.
Local schools, which were scheduled to begin Monday, have postponed the start of the school year. And tourists, a key source of income for Labor Day weekend during the peak of the hiking and beach season, have emptied out in droves, forcing local businesses to close en masse.
In an inlet of restaurants in Tahoe Valley, crowds of locals squeezed in and out of the Overland Meat and Seafood Company, which sold all its perishables Saturday at half-price after business fell to one-fifth of its usual August sales.
“I don’t blame anybody — why would you want to put something in your freezer right now?” said owner Brian Cohen. “This is our last big hurrah, our last big holiday — and it’s obviously not going to happen.”
Cohen sold the last of his chicken, pork and oysters hours before he planned to close that evening. As he walked out — a “Closed due to the fire” sign tacked on the door — he nodded back toward Highway 50. He recalled the 2007 Angora Fire that destroyed 254 homes around South Lake Tahoe.
“I have that same butterfly feeling in my stomach again,” he said. “I pray for Tahoe. I love this place.”
In the town of Meyers, where evacuation warnings stopped just short of the curving San Diego Street, many residents have already fled from the smoke as Amy Amacker and her son, Ryder, arrived to pick up their neighbors’ mail. Last week, Amacker’s horse boarding business sent about 30 animals back to their owners as the fire advanced.
Amy Amacker has been nursing a headache from the smoke for days.
“I’m really worried about the ash and the embers,” she said. “We live in a giant kindling box. It’s terrifying.”
Crews on Sunday lined Highway 50 to monitor spot fires as they spat flames further up the ridge, razing patches of forest, surrounding homes with hoses and chopping down trees around them.
Some of that preparation was happening at Sierra-at-Tahoe, where Cal Fire and Forest Service workers conferred outside tankers and waited for their next call into the field Sunday. Hotshot trucks and giant flatbeds laden with dozers moved around the camp like a giant beehive.
Between the steep rockface, canyons and little mountain communities leading to Echo Summit, there are few places with large parking lots and man-made firebreaks to place equipment ahead of the blaze’s path, making the ski resort a natural choice as the fire pushes east, said Hunter, who works as a West Sacramento Fire captain.
For Rice, who had offered the beloved local mountain to Cal Fire, the dozers and trucks fanning out into the ski resort had offered reassurance as he mapped the flames edging closer and closer to both the lodge and his home in Meyers.
“I’m not leaving ‘till they tell me to get out of here — until they physically say, ‘leave,’” he said. “We’re going to do everything we can.”
By Sunday evening, as spot fires shot closer up the hills against the orange-gray sky, Rice and his mountain manager Paul Beran were told to just that. So they turned on the snow sprayers to shoot water at the lodge, and hoped for the best.