Not if But When: Tracking the Caldor Fire

Jill Sanford

Jill Sanford

Communications Manager

Fire in the Tahoe Basin was never a matter of if, but when.

And much to the horror and heartbreak of so many that love the Tahoe region so much, that far-off when is happening now.

It’s one thing to follow the news reports and social media videos of wildfire damage from afar, mentally preparing yourself for what it might be like to try and identify the skeletal remains of a structure as your own family’s cabin or home. Or see the tornados of fire set ablaze against a hillside you’ve traversed hundreds of times by car or by foot. Or watch a community you know and love evacuate by the thousands, their whole lives crammed into one carload.

It’s another thing entirely when it happens for real.

As much as my recent work here at SBC this summer on wildfire policy blogs and our biomass video series should have prepared me, on Sunday, August 15th, I was still blissfully unaware of what the next two weeks would hold for this region. Seeking respite from the intense smoke of the Dixie fire, I had escaped from Truckee to my childhood home in Placerville and was spending the afternoon with my dog just 20 minutes up the hill along the shores of Sly Park Lake.

Sly Park (Jenkinson) Lake on Aug. 15, 2021

While I was there, a helicopter flew over and dipped into the lake several times, refilling its tanks and circling away. Knowing how far I was from the Dixie and Tamarack fires, I wondered at the time if the pilot was in training and they were practicing maneuvers, so certain I was that any threat of catastrophic wildfire must be far off in the distance.

Little did I know, less than 12 hours later the newly ignited Caldor Fire would flare up (just about 10 miles as the crow flies from where I walked my dog that day) and overpower the small community of Grizzly Flats.

And in two weeks’ time, this same fire would do the unimaginable, the unthinkable. It would burn over the crest of the Sierra and become the first fire in known history to start outside of the Tahoe Basin and make its way in, displacing (to date) nearly 60,000 people, burning over 600 structures, and forever changing over 200,000 acres of a landscape that nearly all who experience feel has been imprinted on their soul.

With a burn in the back of my throat this last Sunday evening, I watched as the Caldor Fire flared towards Echo Summit. I mentally said goodbye to my late grandmother’s historic cabin and the Echo Lake Chalet, built by her brother, my great-uncle, in the 1940s (both are miraculously still standing as of 6am on Wednesday, September 1st). I envisioned a future of tree skiing through burned skeletons at Sierra-at-Tahoe, the resort where I first clicked into a pair of hand-me-down skis. I spoke with Sherry Hao here at SBC about a scenario that may well be a reality for climbers of the Sierra — extreme wildfire heat warping the rocks at Sugarloaf and Lovers Leap, changing the routes up those well-known climbing destinations forever. I doomscrolled through social media and then also my own iCloud for photos of past hikes up Horsetail Falls, Mt. Ralston, and throughout Desolation.

Echo Lake Cabins on Sept 1, 2021. Photo by Loren Sperber

So many people — myself included — have found their sense of self in the mountains around Tahoe. I’ll leave you with one last image to hold tight to as we watch this landscape burn. My childhood memories are punctuated by drives up and down the Highway 50 corridor, my forehead pressed to the glass as I watched the trees and rapids of the American River blur past. About halfway between Kyburz and Pollock Pines was a burn scar from the Cleveland Fire, a fire that laid the forest bare when I was a toddler. Throughout my life I can remember that scar filling in, becoming less barren and more forest-like. As an adult traveling through the area, I had to really look to pick out the burned trees that were so prominent when I was young. As I grew, so did the scarred forest.

The Caldor Fire, of course, is much, much larger than the 22,000 acre Cleveland Fire, as fires these days are. The number of people impacted and the severity of their loss is tenfold compared to the Cleveland Fire. But however long it takes, the landscape and communities touched by the Caldor Fire will regrow.

From Echo Summit, Overlooking Christmas Valley and South Lake Tahoe

To support those whose homes and livelihoods are at stake because of the Caldor Fire, please join me in donating to the El Dorado Community Foundation, which will help families and residents under mandatory evacuation order in El Dorado County, including the Tahoe area from Kyburz through South Lake Tahoe to the Nevada border. To donate or apply for relief, please click here.

The Caldor Fire is unfortunately not the only wildfire weighing heavy on the hearts of so many in the Sierra Nevada this year. Here are a list of more recent and current wildfire resources in the region to support and apply for:

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