California wildfire: South Lake Tahoe residents told to evacuate as blaze draws closer

The Caldor wildfire has raced towards the large freshwater lake which straddles California and Nevada

Thousands of residents have been forced to evacuate the popular Californian tourist city of South Lake Tahoe in order to escape the raging wildfire inching closer towards it.

In an unprecedented move, officials issued an evacuation order for the city of 20,000 on Monday, triggering chaotic scenes as residents packed roads in a frantic scramble to leave.

South Lake Tahoe’s main medical facility, Barton Memorial Hospital, proactively evacuated dozens of patients, and the El Dorado Sheriff’s Office transferred inmates to a nearby jail.

Evacuation traffic backs up in South Lake Tahoe Credit: Reno Gazette-Journal via AP

“There is fire activity happening in California that we have never seen before. The critical thing for the public to know is evacuate early,” said Chief Thom Porter, director of the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection.

“For the rest of you in California: Every acre can and will burn some day in this state.”

Firefighters arriving overnight were dispatched to protect homes in the Christmas Valley area about 10 miles south of the city, after the already massive Caldor Fire grew seven miles in one area north-east of Highway 50.

The Caldor Fire devastates a hillside above Christmas Valley Credit: AP

“It’s more out of control than I thought,” evacuee Glen Naasz said of the fire that by late on Monday had burned mountain cabins as it moved down slopes into the Tahoe Basin.

“We’re flooding the area with resources,” he said. “Wherever there are structures, there are firefighters on the ground.”

Locals across the state line in Nevada have also been warned to get ready to flee, with the raging Caldor fire drawing closer as it expands to the north and south.

Normally filled with tens of thousands of summer tourists, South Lake Tahoe, at the lake’s southern end, bustles with outdoor activities.

But the popular holiday destination has been emptied out by the approaching fire, which has scorched nearly 292 square miles since breaking out on August 14.

Firefighters walk into the woods to monitor the Caldor Fire burning near South Lake Tahoe. Credit: AP

More than 600 structures have been destroyed, and at least 20,000 more are threatened.

State officials have scrambled to deploy more than 15,000 firefighters to battle dozens of California blazes, including crews from Utah, Washington, Wisconsin and West Virginia.

Chief Porter said only twice in California history have blazes burned from one side of the Sierra Nevada to the other, both this month, with the Caldor and Dixie fires.

Greenville, in northern California, was left in ashes after the Dixie fire grew to a size greater than New York City

The Dixie, the second-largest wildfire in state history at 1,205 square miles, about 65 miles north of the Lake Tahoe-area blaze, prompted new evacuation orders and warnings on Monday.

The threat of fire is so widespread that the US Forest Service announced on Monday that all national forests in California would be closed until September 17.