PHILLIPS PARK (CBS SF) — Beloved cabins reduced to piles of rubble, memories incinerated in minutes, those bore witness early Friday to the intensity of the firefight with the massive Caldor Fire in Phillips Park as it raged along Highway 50 on its march to South Lake Tahoe.

Winds have eased over the last 24 hours as the fire grew by about 800 acres. The break came after days of a relentless firefight with the wall of flames as it raged up Highway 50, roared over Echo Summit, and descended the mountains toward the Tahoe basin.

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During his Friday morning briefing for fire crew leaders, Cal Fire West Zone Operations Chief Tim Ernst told them:

“I’ll sum up everything with the incident with these words — cautiously optimistic — that’s the result of a lot of hard work you’ve put in over the two weeks of being here…We had no significant fire runs through the whole shift yesterday.”

But the improving weather conditions did not mean that the more than 4,000 firefighters were not facing challenges presented by rugged mountainous terrain, tinder-dry vegetation, and the daily up-canyon winds common in the region.

“Dry, terrain driven, squirrelly winds — just because we don’t have Red Flag wind conditions across the fire, the winds are still there and all localized,” Cal Fire meteorologist Jim Dudley warned crew leaders Friday.

Firefighters awoke Friday to another day of battling flames and protecting cabins near Wrights Lake and around Lower Echo Lake, attempting to keep the fire from spreading into the scrub brush and timber of the Desolation Wilderness, keeping the blaze at bay near the Kirkwood Ski resort and slowing its eastward advance toward the Nevada state line.


“Even though there is a lot of rock in that area, there are some small stringers of timber and if there is one stick out there on the rock, it will catch on fire,” said West Zone Operations chief Erich Schwab of the challenges near Kirkwood.

Crews also responded late Thursday to spot fires igniting near Caples Lake.

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“We are starting to find those spot fires which got throw out over the control lines over the last two days of the heavy southwest wind event that we had,” said Steven Volmer, a fire behaviorist with Cal Fire, at a Thursday briefing. “Our resources are picking those up as fast as they can.”

By Friday evening, the blaze had grown to 213,270 acres with 32% containment. During its advance, the Caldor Fire has destroyed at least 845 structures including hundreds of homes in the fire-ravaged community of Grizzly Flats and several in Phillips Park.

Five people have been injured — three firefighters and two civilians — including firefighter Richard Gerety, who remained hospitalized with severe burns.

Law enforcement officers who have come from across the state have also been busy, protecting the homes abandoned by the thousands who were forced to evacuate as the flames approached.

South Lake Tahoe police say they have arrested three suspected looters since the city emptied out after a mandatory evacuation order went into effect on Wednesday.

Lake Tahoe looters arrested (South Lake Tahoe Police Dept.)

On the western edge of the fire, residents evacuated from the Pollock Pines area near where the fire began on Aug. 14 were being allowed to return to their homes.

Among them was Cheryl Romaine.

“We’re glad to be back home, we missed our little retreat here,” she said. “We’ve never had this happen before. During the King Fire, we only evacuated for one day. And that wasn’t even mandatory. But this one I guess just went crazy.”

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