California authorities lifted mandatory evacuation orders for South Lake Tahoe on Monday, allowing the resort town’s 22,000 residents to return home.
The decision marked a confident milestone in the fight against the Caldor fire, but the blaze remains only 48% contained and still threatens areas south of the town.
Firefighters are confronting aggressive winds and flames in some south-east sections of the Caldor fire, which could still reach Meyers, a community more than a mile high known as the gateway to Lake Tahoe, and other areas including the Kirkwood ski resort.
And although the evacuation is no longer mandatory for the smoke-cloaked city on the lake’s south shore, more than 5,000 personnel are still working to protect the surrounding resort communities and the homes of employees who staff casinos, restaurants and ski resorts.
“We’re also looking long term, what’s going to happen, four, five or six days down the road. We want to make sure we’re planning and having stuff ready and completed,” said Cal Fire official John Davis. “And if it comes sooner, we are already in the planning process for the whole area that’s still under evacuation order.”
When the 338 sq-mile (876 sq-km) wildfire gobbled up pine trees and crossed the Sierra Nevada last week, South Lake Tahoe transformed into a ghost town. The city appeared slightly rebounded on Monday, yet mostly empty compared to normal holiday weekends.
“I was honestly convinced this place was gonna go down,” said Lake Tahoe Community College student Dakota Jones Monday upon his return. “It was nice to see that I was wrong.”
The Caldor fire erupted on 14 August and was burning as many as 1,000 acres an hour at its peak as it spread across dense forests, tree-dotted granite cliffs and scattered cabins and hamlets in the northern Sierra Nevada. Through tactics including bulldozing defense lines and air-dropping Lake Tahoe water onto the flames, crews successfully carved a perimeter around much of the wildfire.
Fire officials still expect hot spots, but hope to make enough progress to lift more evacuation orders in the coming days. Much depends on the wind, rain and lightning that coming thunderstorms may yield.
Winds have been easing, allowing firefighters to make progress containing the conflagration, but authorities remain concerned about south-west winds sparking spot fires. In Northern California, the weather is expected to cool slightly and the humidity to rise starting on Tuesday.
California and much of the US West have experienced dozens of wildfires in the past two months as the warming, drought-stricken region swelters under dry heat and winds drive flames through vegetation.
More than 14,500 firefighters were battling 14 active fires in the state on Monday, and since the year began more than 7,000 wildfires have devoured 3,000 sq miles (8,000 sq km).
No deaths have been reported specifically from the fires, which have shut down all national forests in the state.