Caldor Fire becomes a federal emergency. Firefighters and residents feel psychological, physical, financial strain

Written by Amy Ta, produced by Bennett Purser

Firefighters Stephanie Lockhart and Dustin Peters of North Tahoe Fire break up smoldering areas after the Caldor Fire moved through the area, in South Lake Tahoe, California, U.S., September 1, 2021. Photo by REUTERS/Fred Greaves.

As of this morning, the Caldor Fire has spared South Lake Tahoe, but more than 53,000 residents have evacuated amid the uncertainty. The wildfire has burned more than 200,00 acres in the Sierra Nevada mountains. Some of the nearby ski resorts ran their snow-making machines all night, dousing their land and buildings to calm the approaching flames.

NPR national correspondent Eric Westervelt is in South Lake Tahoe, and he tells KCRW that wind conditions are much better now.

“These spot fires where the wind whips up embers and throws out mini fires that can easily turn into bigger fires — that was a key concern … because there's a lot of homes densely packed and a lot of the brush in there,” he says. “And the forested area hasn't burned in 80 to 100 years, so it's really ready to go, and that's a key area, both trying to stop those spot fires but also trying to stop the main line of the fire from going … closer to the town of Meyers and then in South Lake Tahoe.”

With residents evacuated, Westervelt says you can’t overstate how eerie and quiet the area is. “You've got these resorts, casinos, beaches, bars, hotels that of course — end of summer, heading into labor day weekend — would be packed. And it's just completely empty with the mandatory evacuations. … With few people around, we're seeing more bears and coyotes and other wildlife running around.”

He notes that both the Caldor Fire and the Dixie Fire, which isn’t far away, will likely burn for the coming weeks. “So really this year-round, iconic resort area, certainly around the southern edge, is just reeling from the impact.”

President Biden has declared a federal emergency as the Caldor Fire is the biggest wildfire in the U.S. right now. That means the area will get additional firefighting resources, including some from the Department of Defense, Westervelt says.

“They've got some trained firefighters and people who can help with traffic management and checkpoints, as well as additional resources to help evacuees. … They're kind of throwing everything they have at this fire to try to stop it.”

Still, fire season will continue for many months, meaning resources will have to be stretched.

“September, October, November, you get some of the most intense fires. And already these firefighting crews have been working incredibly hard in June, July, and August. And there's already a kind of a burnout factor. I mean, six of the seven largest fires in California history have all burned within the last 11 months. … That's putting a huge impact financially, physically, psychologically on certainly the community, but these firefighters who are on the frontline.”