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Evacuations Are Ordered As Caldor Fire Races Toward Lake Tahoe

A MARTINEZ, HOST:

Thousands of people in the Lake Tahoe area are facing another day of stress and uncertainty as the out-of-control Caldor Fire races through the Sierra Nevada. The 21,000 residents of South Lake Tahoe are now under a mandatory evacuation order. NPR's Kirk Siegler reports.

KIRK SIEGLER, BYLINE: It's no small feat trying to get everyone out from the high altitude Lake Tahoe Basin, then down one of just two windy mountain highways that plunge into the Nevada desert. A shaken Joseph Devore and Angela Stockton made the trip and were relieved that the extraordinary evacuation was mostly orderly.

JOSEPH DEVORE: We was lucky to get out. My house sits right about the beginning of where the fire's going to start coming in.

SIEGLER: He lives behind the Kmart in South Lake Tahoe, where firefighters are trying to make a stand. A Vietnam vet, Devore had just a few minutes to get his essential documents, his dog and his Harley strapped to the bed of his pickup. He's feeling fortunate, though. He has good insurance.

DEVORE: If we have a house when we go back, we'll be lucky.

SIEGLER: Shelters quickly filled to capacity during the mass evacuation, leaving people like Devore and nearby Jeannie Pearson stranded and confused about where to go next.

JEANNIE PEARSON: And then the traffic was all backed up because people are coming down so fast, they don't know where they're going and they don't know where they're staying 'cause everything's booked up.

SIEGLER: It took Pearson and her elderly mom an hour to travel just a few miles from the old marina called the Tahoe Keys through town and towards safety across the state line. She's worried about her home and a house she rents to some college kids.

PEARSON: Well, I'm hoping it doesn't burn for me, but I'm hoping it doesn't burn for them because there's literally a housing crisis. There's no housing up there already. And if it burns, there will be almost zero housing, and these young people need places to stay.

SIEGLER: It's been a difficult run lately for Tahoe. Newcomers from cities have inundated the resort area during the pandemic, then a punishing drought and now weeks of dense smoke and hazardous air, which drove the tourists and their spending money away. By last evening, South Lake Tahoe was eerily deserted as the dreaded wind howled. I'm actually standing on a beach here in what is normally a crowded park and a busy marina. The wind is ripping through here, which is a huge problem. Even in the few minutes that I've been standing here, the smoke has gotten even thicker. I can't see the south end of the lake over there, about a mile from me. And when I turn to my left and look to the southeast toward the Heavenly Ski Resort, the sky is completely black. White ash is falling around Wade Fikse's place, not far from the slopes of Heavenly.

WADE FIKSE: We're going to stick around for a little while, till either the smoke gets too bad or the fire just looks like it's getting too close.

SIEGLER: He's unfurling hoses on his wood deck.

FIKSE: We're going to spray off the roof. We're going to probably put a sprinkler on top on the roof. Yeah.

SIEGLER: Worst-case scenario, he says, but that's what people around here are bracing for this summer.

Kirk Siegler, NPR News, South Lake Tahoe. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.