Wildfires close highways 50, 88

Smoke from massive wildfires on the west slope of the Sierra forced the California Highway Patrol to shut down two major arteries to Lake Tahoe's south shore.

CHP officers closed Highway 50 on Wednesday, and it was likely to remain closed through at least this morning. Officials also closed Highway 88 and its offshoot, Mormon Emigrant Trail, about 10 miles west of Kirkwood Mountain Resort.

"The smoke is too thick. The visibility is too bad," said CHP employee Christine West. "If people are going to Sacramento, they need to go up the West Shore and down I-80."

Law enforcement officials closed Highway 88 earlier in the day west of Mormon Emigrant Trail because of the Power fire, a 12,000-acre blaze in Eldorado National Forest north toward the highway.

Highway 50 has been closed since Wednesday evening between Meyers and Pollock Pines because of the Fred fire, which doubled in size Thursday to more than 3,000 acres and was only 10 percent contained.

Smoke from the fires started to make its way into the Lake Tahoe Basin Thursday afternoon. At 4 p.m., an Angora Ridge resident reported a wildfire that turned out to be nothing.

"It's just smoke from the other fire," said Mike Mosca, engineer for Lake Valley Fire Protection District. "The only smoke we've been able to locate was back in Desolation Valley. We'll probably be rolling on a few of those."

A larger amount of smoke is expected to blow in because weather forecasts indicate wind direction will change.

"We'll probably end up with some localized heavy smoke in the basin fairly soon," said Rex Norman, public affairs officer the U.S. Forest Service Lake Tahoe Basin Management Unit. "We've had a big weather system with north-northeast winds that's been blowing smoke away from us."

The Fred fire has destroyed two water pump houses and is close enough to the tiny towns of Kyburz and Silver Fork that fire officials ordered a mandatory evacuation there Wednesday night. About 50 residents spent the night at the Pollock Pines Community Center.

Downed power lines near the edge of Highway 50 between Ice House Road and Wrights Lake Road likely ignited the Fred fire, but the cause is still under investigation, said Kristi Schroeder, USFS information officer.

"Winds have been the biggest problem in both fires," she said. "We've got strong winds and steep terrain."

The Fred and Power fires grew in size enormously Wednesday night because of what the Forest Service calls "red-flag" conditions. Red-flag means the forest is dry, the weather is dry, and the winds are strong. Similar conditions were predicted Thursday night.

"It blew up because of the winds," said Donna Winkelman, an Eldorado National Forest resource officer working the Power fire. "My understanding is they got to 40 mph. Pretty intense."

The Power fire ignited Oct. 6. The cause is under investigation, but the area - in Alpine County north of Salt Spring Reservoir - is popular for camping.

Fire officials evacuated a resort and 48 cabins near Bear River Reservoir on Wednesday. By Thursday, the fire had quadrupled in size, but it had not burned the resort.

More than 20 handcrews, seven helicopters, four air tankers and 10 dozers battled the blaze. The Forest Service estimates 10 percent of the fire is contained, and it will not be fully contained until Oct. 23. So far, the fight has cost $3 million.


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