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Caldor Fire jumps highway amid evacuation order, scorches its way toward pristine Lake Tahoe

Ryan W. MillerDavid RodriguezRyan Randazzo

  • Another red flag warning Tuesday in Northern California could make conditions worse for firefighters.
  • The Caldor Fire jumped Highway 89 on Monday after a mass evacuation of South Lake Tahoe.
  • More evacuation orders were issued near the Dixie Fire, the state’s second largest in history.

SOUTH LAKE TAHOE, California – Bearing down on scenic Lake Tahoe, the Caldor Fire grew overnight after jumping a highway and prompting mass evacuations of the lakeside town, fire officials said Tuesday.

The Caldor Fire is scorching its way toward South Lake Tahoe, where residents on Monday frantically scrambled east toward Nevada on Highway 50 amid the evacuation order.

The California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection said the wildfire reached nearly 300 square miles on Tuesday as it remains active in an area south of South Lake Tahoe. The fire, which ignited Aug. 14, is 16% contained.

Conditions Tuesday were expected to fan the flames further, with a red flag warning remaining in effect across the region. Wind gusts up to 35 mph and single-digit humidity could cause fires to grow rapidly before being put out, the National Weather Service said.

Nearby casinos shut down Monday, a local hospital evacuated and tourists and residents jammed the streets of the typically relaxing lakeside vacation spot.

“This is a systematic evacuation, one neighborhood at a time,” South Lake Tahoe police Lt. Travis Cabral said on social media.

After the evacuation orders went into effect for the city’s 22,000 residents, the fire jumped Highway 89 and was moving north on a ridge into Meyers in South Lake Tahoe, a USA TODAY Network reporter observed. Crews were expected to begin structure protection on homes near the Christmas Valley community.

Parts of Douglas County to the east in Nevada were also warned late Monday to prepare for potential evacuations.

The Caldor Fire is one of 83 large fires and complexes burning more than 3,900 square miles across the West, according to the National Interagency Fire Center.

Cal Fire said winds near the Caldor Fire were creating spotting up three quarters of a mile from the fire line. The fire also threatened containment lines established along U.S. 50, Cal Fire said.

“It’s more out of control than I thought,” evacuee Glen Naasz said of the fire.

Ken Breslin was stuck in bumper-to-bumper traffic less than a mile from his home Monday, with only a quarter-tank of gas in his Ford Escape as the evacuation order came.

“Until this morning, I didn’t think there was a chance it could come into this area. Now, it’s very real,” he said.

The fire has destroyed more than 480 homes and 182 other commercial or smaller structures. At least five people have been injured, and 3,784 firefighters were battling the flames, Cal Fire said. Additional strike teams to protect homes arrived late Monday, said fire spokesman Dominic Polito.

“Wherever there are structures, there are firefighters on the ground,” Polito added. 

Evacuation traffic backs up in South Lake Tahoe, Calif., as mandatory evacuations are announced due to the Caldor Fire on  Aug. 30, 2021. Thousands of people rushed to get out of South Lake Tahoe as the entire tourist resort city came under evacuation orders and wildfire raced toward the large freshwater lake of Lake Tahoe, which straddles California and Nevada.
Lake Tahoe’s pristine waters threatened; Sierra-at-Tahoe’s main building spared

With pristine blue waters and summer and winter activities abound, the Lake Tahoe area typically draws 15 million visitors a year.

Beyond the immediate concern for public safety and the thousands of homes at risk is the threat the fire poses to the clarity of and scenery around the world-renowned lake. 

Flames enveloped hillsides around Sierra-at-Tahoe Resort, which lost some minor structures but had its main building spared. Crews used snow-making machines to douse the ground.

Webcam footage appeared to show firefighters using a lift at Kirkwood Mountain Resort in their fight to keep the flames at bay.

Heavenly Ski Resort straddles the state line, with lifts and trails in both states. Monday’s evacuation orders included the area around its California operations.

On the Nevada side of the border, the state’s gaming control board said some resorts began shutting down certain portions of their gaming operations.

“We would presume that this could escalate over the coming hours,” Nevada Gaming Control Board Analyst Michael Lawton said in an email.Get the Coronavirus Watch newsletter in your inbox.

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The four major casinos in the area include Harrah’s Lake Tahoe, Harvey’s, Hard Rock Lake Tahoe and Montbleu Casino Resort.

Dixie Fire prompts further evacuation orders

Meanwhile, further north in California around the Dixie Fire, sheriff’s offices in two counties expanded evacuation orders Monday as crews are trying to prevent the fire from reaching the Highway 70 corridor.

The Lassen County Sheriff’s Office told more residents to evacuate as the 7-week-old fire spread east of Butte Lake in the Lassen National Forest. Near the southern section of the fire, the Plumas County Sheriff’s Office told multiple communities to leave as the fire presses across the Genesee Valley and Grizzly Ridge and moving closer to Lake Davis in the Plumas National Forest.

A firefighter hoses down flames from the Dixie Fire in Genesee, Calif., on Saturday, Aug. 21, 2021.

The more than 1,260-square-mile blaze is the the second largest wildfire in state history, destroying 1,277 structures, including 685 houses, and threatening more than 13,600 more, according to Cal Fire. Firefighters have the flames almost 50% contained.

A red flag warning was also in effect in the area near the Dixie Fire.

Since its start on July 13, the Dixie Fire has consumed an estimated $1 billion of timber, with an additional $1 billion still threatened, according to Lassen National Forest’s outlook report.

Across California, 13 large wildfires are burning. Climate change has caused wildfires in the West to grow more frequent and intense in recent years, scientists agree.

The ongoing blazes caused forest officials to close all of the state’s national forests to visitors for at least two weeks in hopes of helping fire crews get a handle on spiraling crises. 

“We do not take this decision lightly but this is the best choice for public safety,” said Regional Forester Jennifer Eberlien.

Hurricane Ida death toll reaches 4; millions remain without power; flooding a threat in Tennessee, Ohio, Mid-Atlantic

John Bacon

The death toll from Hurricane Ida rose to at least four after a highway collapsed in Mississippi, millions were still without power, and flooding remained a threat Tuesday as remnants of the monster storm swept across the Southeast. 

“Some of these cars are stacked on top of each other,” Mississippi Highway Patrol Cp. Cal Robertson said. 

Two deaths have been confirmed in Louisiana, including a person hit by a falling tree outside Baton Rouge and a driver who drowned in New Orleans. Gov. John Bel Edwards said at least 671 people had been rescued from floodwaters in Louisiana by Monday afternoon. 

Power remained out Tuesday to more than 1 million homes and businesses in Louisiana and another 75,000 in Mississippi, Alabama and Virginia, according to grid-monitoring website poweroutage.com.

Ida roared onto the Gulf Coast near Port Fourchon, Louisiana, on Sunday with 150-mph winds before barreling toward Mississippi. Ida had quieted to tropical depression status Tuesday with sustained winds of 30 mph. The National Weather Service warned that the heavy rain and flooding threat would spread from the Tennessee and Ohio valleys up through the Mid-Atlantic states on Wednesday.

“Considerable flash flooding is possible,” meteorologist Alex Lamers said.

Hundreds rescued in Louisiana, where more than 1 million are out of power; 2 dead

Residents begin returning to battered Lafourche Parish

Lafourche residents will be allowed to return home beginning at noon today, the parish Sheriff’s Office says. Residents of the parish, home to almost 100,000 people southwest of New Orleans, face a curfew from 7 p.m. to 6 a.m. Authorities warned that power will remain out “for some time.” Many homes have no clean running water, and nearly all communication is down, including cellphone service parishwide.

“Your home may be severely damaged and uninhabitable,” the office said in a statement. “We do not have access to food at this time due to the amount of damage to stores, so please bring all supplies you need to self-sustain while you are here.”

– Dan Copp, The Courier

New Orleans airport cancels flights for third day

Louis Armstrong New Orleans International Airport canceled all incoming and outgoing commercial flights for a third day Tuesday, and at least 197 cancellations were already reported for Wednesday. The airport said the lack of power and water meant no air conditioning or restrooms. Parking operators have not observed any significant damage to vehicles, the airport said in a tweet. 

The terminal, runways and taxiways appeared to have sustained no serious damage, officials said. Debris was being cleared and some perimeter fencing was being repaired.

Drinkable water issues affecting more than 640,000 people

Eighteen water systems were out of service in southern Louisiana, affecting more than 312,000 people, Gov. John Bel Edwards said. An additional 14 systems serving 329,000 people were under boil-water advisories. Covington Mayor Mark Johnson said the advisory will be in affect in his city of more than 10,000 until city crews have completed a damage assessment of the water infrastructure. Some locals responded on local media by inquiring how they can boil water with no electricity.

Residents in New Orleans and Jefferson Parish were asked to conserve water to prevent sewer systems from backing up.

New Orleans police deploy anti-looting teams

The New Orleans Police Department said it has deployed anti-looting teams across the city to protect property during the recovery process. Videos circulated on social media  appear to show some businesses being cleaned out by looters. Mayor LaToya Cantrell emphasized at a press conference on Monday that “there is no widespread looting operation going on throughout the city of New Orleans,” and vowed to lock up anyone caught in the act.

“Looting will NOT be tolerated and (we) encourage everyone to be good neighbors and say something when you see something,” the department tweeted.

Waverly, Tennessee, could face more flooding 10 days after tragedy

The remnants of Hurricane Ida are headed to Tennessee and are expected to bring up to five inches of rain to Waverly, where 20 people died in flooding just 10 days ago. The forecast includes a flash flood watch. Waverly is expected to receive 24 hours of almost continuous moderate to heavy rain through Tuesday night. 

“The system overall is weakening, but it is going to bring a lot of rain up here,” said John Cohen, a National Weather Service meteorologist in Nashville.

Last week’s high temperatures and sun helped dry out lawns and the growing piles of debris. But a blast from Ida could hinder the town’s effort to trudge forward. Gretchen Turner’s kitchen cabinets, leather couch, suitcases and many of her other belongings were piled onto her front lawn.

“It’s sort of demoralizing when you’re working so hard and then everything gets wet,” Turner said. “We still have lots of dirt everywhere, but it’s about to be mud again.”

Two die in Mississippi highway collapse

Two people were killed and at least 10 others were injured when their vehicles plunged into a deep hole where a highway collapsed after Ida blew through George County, Mississippi. Torrential rain may have caused the collapse, and the drivers may not have seen that the roadway in front of them had disappeared Monday night, Mississippi Highway Patrol Cp. Cal Robertson said. Seven vehicles were involved, including a motorcycle. A crane was brought in to lift them out of the hole, which Robertson said was 50 to 60 feet in length and 20 to 30 feet deep.

Over 1 million remain without power; some could be dark for 3 weeks

More than 1 million homes and businesses in Louisiana remained dark Tuesday, meaning more than 2 million state residents remain without power, Gov. John Bel Edwards said. The utility Entergy Louisiana said some customers could experience outages for more than three weeks. Damage to eight high-voltage lines took out power for New Orleans and Jefferson, St. Bernard and Plaquemines parishes, as well as parts of St. Charles and Terrebonne parishes, the company said. One transmission tower collapsed, causing the tower’s conductor and wires to land in the Mississippi River.

Entergy New Orleans CEO Deanna Rodriguez said it was too soon to estimate when power would return to all customers.

“This will be a marathon, not a sprint,” Deanna Rodriguez said. “We’re working as safely and quickly as we can … but we must all be prepared for the recovery to take some time.”

Ida creating a ‘pandemic tinderbox’ for parts of Louisiana

Hurricane Ida has pummeled Louisiana’s parishes, strapping hospital and health resources. Experts worry Ida’s impact will worsen COVID-19 spread in the state’s low-lying parishes, where some vaccination rates are only about a third of the population and cases have surged to all-time highs. Crowded shelters, delayed treatments and inundated hospitals and intensive care units are a recipe that put under-vaccinated communities at dire risk for more infections, experts said. The unvaccinated account for the majority of deaths and hospitalizations.

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