A firefighter mops up hot spots from the Caldor Fire near South Lake Tahoe, Calif., on Wednesday, Sept. 1, 2021. (AP Photo/Jae C. Hong)
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SOUTH LAKE TAHOE, Calif. — Firefighters reported progress Wednesday in the battle to save communities on the south end of Lake Tahoe from an approaching forest fire after the stiff winds and searing temperatures they had feared failed to materialize in the California-Nevada alpine region.
"We lucked out a little bit (Tuesday) with some of the winds that didn't come up quite as hard as we expected them to," Tim Ernst, an operations section chief, told firefighters in a morning briefing.
An inversion layer, a cap of warm air over cooler air, then developed in the early morning hours "that put a real damper on things, slowed a lot of growth," Ernst said. "So a lot of opportunity to make a lot of progress last night."
The Caldor Fire has been burning toward Lake Tahoe from the southwest along California Highway 50, climbing over a high-elevation Sierra Nevada summit and descending into the Tahoe Basin.
"We were fortunate the fire did not make as strong a push into Tahoe as it did the previous day," Ernst said.
At the northeast tip of the fire, south of the city of South Lake Tahoe, "we've got some great dozer line that protects structures here, so this whole community is looking really good right now," he said.
Despite the positive developments, firefighters were warned that critical weather conditions remained and they would likely face gusty, swirling winds all day.
Thick smoke from the Caldor Fire has enveloped the city of South Lake Tahoe, which is all but deserted during a summer week usually bustling with tourists.
On Monday, roughly 22,000 residents jammed the city's main artery for hours after they were ordered to leave as the fire advanced.
South Lake Tahoe city officials said only a handful of residents defied Monday's evacuation order. But nearly everyone worried Tuesday about what the fire would do next.
Tom O'Connell and his wife, Linda, awaited the fate of their home while anchored on their sailboat in Ventura Harbor. The two-bedroom they've owned for 40 years survived the Angora Fire that destroyed about 250 houses in 2007. They didn't know if they'd be lucky again.
"You worry about the things you can have some control over," O'Connell said. "We've no control over this."
Pushed by strong winds, the Caldor Fire has crossed two major highways and swept down slopes into the Tahoe Basin, where firefighters working in steep terrain were protecting remote cabins.
Cal Fire Division Chief Erich Schwab said some homes burned, but it was too early to know how many.
Thick smoke prevented air firefighting operations periodically last week. But since then, nearly two dozen helicopters and three air tankers dumped thousands of gallons of water and retardant on the fire, fire spokesman Dominic Polito said.
As flames moved toward the Heavenly ski resort on the California-Nevada border, officials turned on the mountain's snow-making machines. Cal Fire Battalion Chief Jed Gaines told San Francisco television station KPIX that spraying the slopes with water was "increasing the humidity level, it's getting everything wet" so that if the fire starts climbing "it's able to slow it down."
A firefighter injured while battling the Caldor Fire last weekend was expected to be hospitalized for a month after undergoing skin grafting surgery. Richard Gerety III of Patterson, California suffered third-degree burns over 20% of his body, the Modesto Bee reported. Despite the very active fire year, there have not been many injuries or deaths among firefighters or residents.
More than 15,000 firefighters were battling dozens of California blazes, with help from out of state crews. Climate change has made the West much warmer and drier in the past 30 years and will continue to make weather more extreme and wildfires more frequent and destructive, scientists say.
The threat of fire is so widespread that the U.S. Forest Service announced Monday that all national forests in California would be closed until Sept. 17.
Crews are battling the Dixie, the second-largest wildfire in state history at 1,281 square miles. The weeks-old fire was burning about 65 miles north of the Lake Tahoe-area blaze and prompting new evacuation orders and warnings this week.
The Caldor Fire has scorched nearly 312 square miles since breaking out Aug. 14. It was 18% contained.
More than 600 structures have been destroyed, and at least 33,000 more were threatened.Har reported from San Francisco. Antczak reported from Los Angeles. Associated Press writers Jocelyn Gecker in San Francisco; Christopher Weber, Brian Melley and Ken Ritter and Michelle Price in Las Vegas contributed to this report.