SALT LAKE TAHOE (CBS SF) — As thousands of South Lake Tahoe residents returned to their homes Monday, officials issued a warning to be on the lookout for bears who have been wandering through the evacuated neighborhoods, ransacking trash cans and homes while scavenging for food.

While firefighters have been able to halt the fire’s advance toward South Lake Tahoe, the firefight continued Monday in other areas of the massive blaze.

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The Caldor Fire stood at 216,358 acres by Monday morning with just 44% containment. Crews were still battling flames and hot spot flareups near Wrights Lake and Lower Echo Lake, and amid the boulders and rocky crags of the Desolation Wilderness north of Highway 50 and the Caples Lake area near Kirkland.

“Although we didn’t have any major runs through the entire day (Sunday), there was a slight uptick in fire behavior,” West Zone Operations Chief Tim Ernst told crew leaders at their Monday morning briefing. “It’s a trend we need to watch over the next few days.”

Ernst said there was solid containment along the entire western edge of the fire where it began on Aug. 14. Crews were responding to calls from returning residents of smoldering embers and identifying dangerous trees that had been weakened by the fire.

The firefight near Wrights Lake, Ernst said, was “extremely challenging” because of the terrain.

He added that the hot spot flare-ups around Caples Lake near Kirkwood “shows us we are not out of the woods yet” in containing the entire fire.

“The piece (of the fire) east for Kirkwood continues to be a thorn in our side,” Ernest said. “A lot of really thick timber in there. With the increase in temperature and decrease in humidity, we have seen a lot of spots (fire) over the last 24 hours outside of our containment lines.”

Meanwhile, East Zone Fire Operations Chief Jake Cagle said rugged, rocky, high altitude terrain was presenting a challenge with the fire in the Desolation Wilderness. A specially-trained team of federal mountain firefighters were airlifted into the area over the weekend.

“We inserted a crew specifically trained for wilderness areas,” Cagle said. “They are working in the Ralston Peak area now, going direct on the stuff in the Wilderness. Weather dependent, smoke dependent, we do have rappelers ready to rappel in there and support those firefighters.”

Rappeler firefighters descend down ropes from helicopters to battle wildfires in remote, inaccessible areas.

On Sunday, the evacuation order that forced the 22,000 residents to abandoned their homes as the Caldor Fire closed in were downgraded to warning for the Salt Lake Tahoe city limits.

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Immediately, an orderly stream of vehicles headed into the city as the repopulation process got underway.

“So far it hasn’t been a mad rush of cars,” South Lake Tahoe Fire Chief Clive Savacool said at a Sunday evening briefing. “We’re happy to see that people are slowly trickling in, just because the city does need time to get ready.”

The areas impacted by Sunday’s downgrade included:

  • South Lake Tahoe City Limits — From the Nevada State line west along Highway 50 to the Tahoe airport; Highway 89 from the city northwest to the city’s edge at West Way Pioneer Trail from State Kine west to Al Tahoe Blvd.
  • North of the City of South Lake Tahoe — All properties on the East (Lake side) of Highway 89 extending north from the city limits to Emerald Bay. All properties on both sides of Highway 89 extending North from Emerald Bay through Tahoma.

The sheriff said evacuation orders were still in effect for Fallen Leaf Lake, Christmas Valley, Meyers and North Upper Truckee.

Among the returnees were Randy and Lisa Suela. As they stood near their home Sunday night, they admitted emotions were running high.

“I’m going to tell you, no place like home!” Lisa said. “You can’t show enough appreciation for how well they (the firefighters) fought this and were able to contain it from the city itself.”

Randy added: “It’s kind of emotional too, you know.”

But some residents found they were not alone in their neighborhoods. Authorities also warned that in the absence of humans, bears had gone to town, spreading trash everywhere that must be picked up.

“The delicate balance between humans and bears has been upset,” and anyone who thinks a bear may have entered their home should call law enforcement, El Dorado County sheriff’s Sgt. Simon Brown said.

While bear nuisance calls are not unusual as the animals live in the nearby woods, those calls have been on the rise during the fire. Officials said they have received 15 calls of marauding bears over the last week.

At its peak, the fire had burned as much as 1,000 acres an hour and last month virtually razed the small community of Grizzly Flats.

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But in recent days the winds had eased and thousands of firefighters took advantage of the better weather to hack, burn and bulldoze fire lines.