SOUTH LAKE TAHOE (CBS SF/AP) — Optimism continued to soar Saturday within the ranks of the small army of firefighters battling the massive Caldor Fire near Lake Tahoe. Evacuated residents were returning homes on the secured western edge of the blaze while crews had slowed the advance of the flames on the outskirts of South Lake Tahoe.
At his morning update Saturday for crews leaders, Cal Fire West Zone Ops Chief Tim Ernst uttered words they have longed to hear during the more than two weeks they have slugged it out with the wildfire as it ripped its way along U.S. Highway 50.READ MORE: UPDATE: Oakland Police Arrest Suspect Caught on Video Assaulting Elderly Asian Woman in Chinatown
“Yesterday was a monumental day and you all need to take credit for that,” he said. “We put hundreds back into their residences…On behalf of all those folks, I want to say thank you…The incident looks better and better every day. We talked yesterday about being cautiously optimistic and we continue in that mode. ”
The wildfire ignited near Pollock Pines on Aug. 14 and grew into a wind-whipped conflagration that devastated the El Dorado County community of Grizzly Flats, eventually destroying hundreds of homes before it marched along Highway 50, over Echo Summit into the outskirts of South Lake Tahoe.
Among those forced from their homes was Cheryl Romaine. She woke up back home Saturday morning.
“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.”
Ernst told crews there were still challenges along the western sector. There were still heat spots along the drainage of the American River. Firefighters were still trying to hold the fire near Wrights Lake.
On the eastern zone, a specially trained federal mountain firefighting team was being deployed to battle the fire’s northern expansion among the timber and scrub brush of the rocky Desolation Wilderness.
Crews also battled spot fires around Caples Lake near Kirkwood while the front edge of the finger of fire marching toward the Heavenly Ski resort and the Nevada state line.READ MORE: Powerful Surf Strikes Coast; Surfers At Ocean Beach Brave Dangerous Waves
Lighter winds and higher humidity heading into the Labor Day weekend helped as fire crews were quick to take advantage by doubling down on burning and cutting fire lines.
Bulldozers with giant blades, crews armed with shovels, and a fleet of aircraft dropping hundreds of thousands of gallons of water and fire retardant helped keep the fire’s advance to a couple of thousand acres — a fraction of its explosive spread last month and the smallest increase in two weeks.
“Things are clearly heading in the right direction for us,” said Dean Gould, a supervisor with the U.S. Forest Service.
While residents were able to return on the western edge, the thousands who were forced for their homes anxiously waited for the green light to return to their homes.
“It’s all based on fire behavior,” said Jake Cagle, an East Zone fire operations section chief. “For now, things are looking good … we’re getting close.”
The resort area can easily accommodate 100,000 people on a busy weekend but was eerily empty just before the holiday weekend.
The wildfire dealt a major blow to an economy that heavily depends on tourism and was starting to rebound this summer from pandemic shutdowns.
“It’s a big hit for our local businesses and the workers who rely on a steady income to pay rent and put food on their table,” said Devin Middlebrook, mayor pro-tem of South Lake Tahoe.MORE NEWS: Homeland Security Warns Russian-Ukraine Crisis Could Lead to Cyberattacks in U.S.
He said the shutdown will also hurt the city, as it gets most of its revenue to pay for police and fire services, as well as road maintenance, from hotel taxes and sales taxes.