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It Could Be Weeks Until Caldor Fire Is Contained And More Than 50,000 Can Return Home

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

Along California's edge, the massive Caldor fire continues to threaten the densely populated town of South Lake Tahoe and the Heavenly Ski Resort. An estimated 50,000 people have now evacuated the Tahoe area. Shelters are filling up, and hotel rooms are hard to find and expensive. NPR's Kirk Siegler reports.

KIRK SIEGLER, BYLINE: When Mimi Routh got orders to evacuate from the Tahoe Senior Center, where she lives, she decided not to wait for the city bus like most of her neighbors. Instead, she drove her own car about 20 miles down to safety in the shelter in Nevada. The 79-year-old veteran wasn't sure how long she'd be gone for and wanted to bring some cherished essentials.

MIMI ROUTH: Oh, I expect it'll be a couple of weeks, so we're looking at how to do laundry, you know, things for ongoing living.

SIEGLER: In the shelter parking lot, Routh is talking through her N-95 mask, shielding her eyes from the ominous, orange-smoke-obscured sun after a mostly sleepless night.

ROUTH: One of my neighbors with beside me in the next cot. He talked, and he coughed. And people were walking on the gym boards.

SIEGLER: But she's grateful to be somewhere safe. The shelter itself is spaced out and following COVID protocols. There had been a concern of overcrowding at places like this. Initially, Routh was told she'd have to drive to another shelter in Reno, 55 miles north.

ROUTH: They did yesterday, and it was a big shock. We can't. It was smoky. And maybe two hours sleep - no. We just sat down.

SIEGLER: She's being allowed to stay. For how long, she doesn't know. People here are stressed and exhausted and wondering what their future holds.

GAYLE WEDGEWOOD: I don't think we can have a plan at this point. I'm hearing that things are looking better up there, but I'm not there, so I don't know.

SIEGLER: This is Gayle Wedgewood's first time evacuating from fire in more than two decades of living in Tahoe. She thought she'd ride it out until wind shifted and the Caldor fire started making runs toward the Nevada side of the lake, triggering more evacuations. Wedgwood is about to leave this shelter because she can't bring her dogs in. She's hoping to find a hotel.

WEDGEWOOD: Just a place for me and - well, there's actually another lady with me and her dog. So there's three dogs and two older women who, you know, need to find a place.

SIEGLER: She pauses, though, thinking a minute and says she, too, feels grateful.

WEDGEWOOD: And the nice thing is we're not in some mountain community where there's no services around. I mean, I forgot a couple things at home and I was able to go over to Walmart and pick them up in a minute. So no problem.

SIEGLER: Indeed, these modern mega fires made worse by climate change are not the western forest fires of old. At this point, firefighters can only try to keep the flames from burning down whole neighborhoods. Here on the front lines of the Caldor fire in a canyon near South Lake Tahoe, a chopper drops water on a steep granite slope. Towering pine trees above are engulfed in flames.

(SOUNDBITE OF HELICOPTER WHIRRING)

SIEGLER: A mile down the road, a crew of firefighters is mopping up hot spots from a small spot fire that blew out in front of the main flank and ignited near a subdivision in the woods.

BILL ERLACH: That's why we're trying to get all these hot spots knocked down, so they don't start anything else in the adjacent neighborhoods.

SIEGLER: Bill Erlach is a battalion chief with Reno Fire. Most of his crew mobilized here directly from the nearby massive Dixie fire. He says this land remains dangerously dry and flammable.

ERLACH: And especially this spot that we're working right here has probably six to eight inches of duff. And then when you scrape that off, you get all the way down to mineral soil. There's still plenty of heat on there that you can't even put your hand on that mineral soil.

SIEGLER: Erlach says this fire won't be slowed down until a major weather change, meaning it could be weeks or more until thousands of people can even try to go home.

Kirk Siegler, NPR News, South Lake Tahoe.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.