Caldor Fire: Containment grows to 19 percent as firefighters keep it west of Lake Tahoe

Firefighters overnight slowed the march of the Caldor Fire as it inched toward the Lake Tahoe Basin Saturday morning, taking advantage of favorable weather conditions, but still stymied by rough terrain.

Containment grew to 19 percent overnight, up from 12 percent on Friday, “a pretty significant jump for us,” Cal Fire Cpt. Keith Wade said Saturday morning, and remained about a dozen miles west of Tahoe.

The focus Saturday, he said, is to keep the fire west of Strawberry and away from Echo Summit and the Tahoe Basin below.

Gusty winds blowing toward the iconic tourist destination are expected to pick up Sunday night and into next week, however, making Saturday’s suppression efforts all the more important.

“Even without the wind,” Wade said, “the fire has shown a propensity to grow and move.”

Light winds Saturday morning blew out enough smoke to allow helicopters to fly and attack the blaze from above. The fire that started near Grizzly Flats has burned almost 150,000 acres and destroyed 469 homes.

At the height of the summer tourist season, Lake Tahoe remained eerily quiet Saturday. Although no evacuation orders had been issued for the communities surrounding the lake, many people choking on the thick smoke had already left.

At the Red Hut Cafe, a longtime favorite for waffles, pancakes and piles of hash browns along Highway 50 in South Lake Tahoe, Matthew McKnight, 22, said customers normally wait 20 minutes for a table on Saturday mornings. The smoke has driven them all away.

“If was crazy busy,” he said. “Now it’s dead.”

By Saturday afternoon, blue sky peeked out through the pall of smoke as the inversion layer lifted, but fresh winds sent ash sweeping across parking lots and down from trees.

Chris Mann and Gary Piche of San Jose, usually stay at Montbleu Casino with a group of 10 friends this time of year. But they cut their trip short Saturday when all but two friends canceled.Their favorite fish ‘n chips place on the beach was closed; so was the ice cream store.

“It’s like Armageddon in a way,” Mann said.

“Party’s over,” Piche said.

Bars, general stores and resorts strung along the two-lane road to South Lake Tahoe appeared deserted — save a few “Vacancy” signs outside dark motels — as the occasional car turned off toward residential streets.

Outside a Raley’s grocery store in South Lake Tahoe Friday evening, retired Arlington, Texas firefighter Bill Hindmarsh, 63, leaned up against a silver minivan while his friend Eddie Goodman loaded up bottled water and beer into the car, debating what to do with a weekend now botched by the Caldor Fire.

Even the worst smoke he’s ever tasted — when fires from Mexico’s Copper Canyon region blew a thick haze into Dallas-Forth Worth about 10 years ago — doesn’t compare, Hindmarsh said.

“We were supposed to play golf, go out on the lake. Now we can’t do nothing,” he said, brandishing a Tahoe brochure. “Now it’s just gambling — and that gets old.”

Goodman threw up his hands.

“Look around you — do you see anybody?” he said.

Ted Kennedy, 56, plays in Heavenly Village a few nights a week with his band. But after half the band fled town, he donned a pork pie hat Friday and took up his guitar alone for the few people scurrying back to their hotels.

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