CHRISTMAS VALLEY (CBS SF) — Firefighters mounting a defense of South Lake Tahoe on Thursday were able to take advantage of favorable weather conditions, gaining ground on the Caldor Fire as authorities arrested their third looting suspect.
As of Thursday evening update by Cal Fire at 7 p.m., the Caldor Fire had grown to 210,893 acres and was 27% contained.READ MORE: Update: Fawn Fire Near Redding Grows To 7,500 Acres Overnight; Firefighters Look To Cooler Weather
The Caldor Fire remained only a few miles from South Lake Tahoe, which was emptied of 22,000 residents days ago, along with casinos and shops across the state line in Nevada.
The wind-whipped assault along the fire lines eased early Thursday, slowing the advancing wall of flames as it burned its way toward the Heavenly Valley Ski Resort and the densely packed neighborhoods of the Tahoe basin.
While the winds may have eased, humidity levels were low and the vegetation was still bone-dry. Fire officials said the threat still remains high.
“Tahoe still at risk so people are gonna still remain evacuated,” said Cal Fire spokesman Keith Wade. “Along the south end of this fire, Alpine County, Douglas County, Amador County — all three are at risk still.”
However, optimism did spread among the fire crews as the winds that have been gusting to 35-40 mph over the last two days subsided overnight and were not forecast to return through the weekend, though higher temperatures were.
Friday’s forecast called for lighter winds but also extremely dry daytime weather, with a warming trend through the weekend as high pressure builds over the West, fire officials said.
Meanwhile, South Lake Tahoe police on Thursday confirmed the arrest of a third looting suspect in the area of the Caldor Fire over the past two days.
Thursday afternoon, officers located a suspicious vehicle hooked up to a boat on a property in the area of Bonanza Avenue that appeared out of place. Police contacted local resident and parolee Colby Fenner, who was in possession of burglary tools and imitation firearms.
Fenner became aggressive with officers and was promptly arrested. He was charged with altering imitation firearms, possession of burglary tools, failure to leave an evacuation zone and a violation of his parole.
Authorities arrested two looting suspects on Wednesday. According to the South Lake Tahoe Police Department, deputies from the Santa Barbara Sheriff’s Office assisting with patrols of the Caldor Fire area spotted a man near a home near Spruce Avenue and Heather Lake Avenue.
Upon seeing the deputies, the 28-year-old South Lake Tahoe resident reportedly got into a car and tried to drive away. Deputies pulled the driver over and determined he had been looting the area.
The suspect faces additional charges of failing to leave an evacuation zone, possession of drug paraphernalia, false registration and altering a replica firearm to resemble a real one.
South Lake Tahoe police said deputies also found a second man in the backyard of a Herbert Avenue home. That man was arrested on charges of looting, burglary, possession of burglary tools and failing to leave an evacuation zone.
“Over the next couple of days we’re going to see the weather change,” said Steven Volmer, the fire behavior analyst assigned to the blaze. “We’re going to see the fire behavior slacken, we’re going to see it diminish to a point where we can get in there and do some good work.”READ MORE: Air Quality Advisory Extended Through Monday Due To Wildfire Smoke
Along the Highway 89 corridor in Christmas Valley, crews were able to stage controlled firing operations to clear underbrush and strengthen the fire break. Firefighters had spent Wednesday, putting out spot fires and building dozer lines.
“Today is a good day,” Cal Fire PIO Dave Lauchner said as he stood in Christmas Valley. “The main body of the fire has moved past this area.”
On Wednesday, President Joe Biden also issued a federal emergency declaration and ordered federal assistance to supplement state and local resources to help with the firefight and bring relief for the area.
At his Thursday morning briefing for firefighters, Cal Fire West Zone Operations Chief Tim Ernst told crew leaders that significant progress was made overnight, keeping the flames away from the Kirkwood Ski Resort along the southeast edge of the fire.
“The area around Kirkwood was our No.1 priority (for the west zone) last night,” Ernst said. “We were able to use night-dropping helicopters in there, did a lot of great work, especially where the fire cut across the (Highway) 88, hopefully that’s going to hold for us.”
Additionally, Ernst said firefighters were engaged with the fire near Wrights Lake off Highway 50 on the north edge of the blaze where crews were actively involved in structure protection.
Management of the firefight was broken into two command units Thursday. Ernst team will manage the resources west of, but not including, Echo Summit. The eastern zone around the Tahoe basin will be under command of Craig Daugherty from the U.S. Forest Service.
Daugherty said dozer lines and crews were halting the spread of the fire into the heavily populated neighborhoods along Pioneer Trail. An active finger of the blaze was progressing to the south of the trail, heading toward the Nevada state line.
“The fire continued to stay active at the front of the blaze last night,” he said. “We have a couple spot fires that where thrown out in front of that. The southeast flank stayed active most of the night.”
Volmer told the crews to be very vigilant for spot fires.
“With those dry conditions we’re seeing today, we’re going to start seeing those spot fires pop up that got thrown out over the last two days with the wind event,” he told the fire crews. “So if you are working in those areas where the wind event occurred, you are going to expect those spot fires to show up today…We have very thin inversion (smoke cover) over the fire, so we expect to see fire activity early in the morning and throughout the shift.”
The Caldor Fire covered more than 328 square miles and was 25% contained early Thursday. Fire crews from around the country part of more than 4,000 battling the blaze.
A smoky haze continued to drape over the eerily quiet streets of South Lake Tahoe and Stateline. Normally, hotels, lakeside cabins and the four major casino resorts would be a beehive of activity as the Labor Day weekend approached. The 22,000 residents were forced to evacuate days ago and were crowded into emergency shelters in Truckee and in Nevada.
Among those forced to flee and now staying in a shelter in Reno was Timothy Pritchard.
“It really hit me,” he said if fleeing his home. “It was a rude awakening.”
Of his hopeful return to his home of 13 years, Pritchard was bracing for what he might find.MORE NEWS: UPDATE: Fawn Fire Grows to 6,850 Acres in Shasta County; No New Structures Destroyed
“It’s going to be smelling like smoke,” he said. “It’s going to ashes and you just have to clean up and take care of it.”