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Yale 62

Smoke, Fire and Our Brief Vacation

By George Snider

Firefighters near Tahoe, August 2021

On August 21, my wife and I departed Cleveland for a long-planned week’s vacation in South Lake Tahoe. Three days later, in the face of suffocating smoke and approaching fire, we were on our way home.

For over 30 years, Nora and I have traveled around the end of August to celebrate her birthday and our wedding anniversary, aka “birthaversary.” With Covid and the Delta variant playing havoc with overseas cruises and travel, we opted this year for a week in the West. Lake Tahoe would be new territory for us.

For some weeks prior to our departure, we had followed the mammoth Dixie Fire north of Sacramento, whose smoke blanketed much of the U.S. for several days. But southwesterly winds took that smoke away from Tahoe. Then, a week before vacation, a tiny blaze known as the Caldor Fire began. Located in the Eldorado National Forest west of South Lake Tahoe, it suddenly exploded days later. Nonetheless, the fire was still over 20 miles away from the lake, and fire lines were holding. Given all our planning and investment, we decided to make the trip.

South Lake Tahoe, at 6200 feet above sea level, straddles the California-Nevada border. Its main attractions to residents and tourists alike have been the crystal-clear glacial lake, the towering Ponderosa pines and Sierra Nevada mountain peaks surrounding the lake, and 10,000-foot-high Heavenly Mountain – a skier’s dream. We looked forward to seeing it all.

George at our recent Coffee Hour

Reality quickly settled in, however. On exiting the rental car garage at Reno airport, we drove into thick smoke that blanketed the desert and would continue southward to our destination, 59 miles away. We had planned to be in South Lake Tahoe by dusk, but flight delays decided otherwise. We were soon driving in the dark and navigating a twisting, increasingly steep highway as a blood-orange moon rose through the smoke and haze.

Finally arriving at the ski lodge in Heavenly Village where we planned to spend the week, we found that the smell of smoke permeated everything, although our apartment’s air seemed slightly fresher. The next morning, a Sunday, bright sun soon turned to a yellowish haze and then to grey. We drove to a nearby beach, where Lake Tahoe literally disappeared a foot or two from shore – no pines or peaks in sight. We found a restaurant near the Heavenly Mountain ski run, where numerous diners chose to sit on the patio and enjoy smoke with their meal. As we left the restaurant, ash began to fall and we realized there was no way we would stay the week.

American was able to switch our flight to Wednesday, and we drove to Reno Tuesday night. Despite warnings from the airline that Western jet fuel shortages might cancel our flight, it left on time.

Talking to the few shopkeepers and restaurant workers still open on Monday, we saw how anxious they were about their personal safety and the future of their businesses. By this point, the Caldor fire had grown to over 140,000 acres – or nearly 250 square miles – and was just 12 miles away from the Tahoe basin. One granite ridge separated the fire from the lake. Almost as threatening, the Air Quality Index (which goes from 1-perfect to 500-extremely hazardous) had risen by some readings to an off-the-chart 600. The day we flew home, the local tourist bureau issued a statement urging visitors to stay home for the foreseeable future – dashing any remaining hopes for a profitable, tourist-filled Labor Day weekend.

That, however, was not the end of the story. By week’s end, the fire had jumped the granite ridge and was threatening the entire Lake Tahoe basin. Early the following week of August 28, the 22,000 residents of South Lake Tahoe were ordered to evacuate, clogging Route 50 east – essentially the only way out of town. On Wednesday evening, 2000 firefighters moved into Heavenly Village and set up a command post and staging area in its large parking lot. Thanks to their efforts, the mandatory evacuation orders were lifted over Labor Day weekend, allowing residents to return from their temporary shelters in Carson City and Reno.

From a broader viewpoint, the Reno-Tahoe region in recent years has benefited from an influx of people eager to escape the aggravations of big-city life and more recently the pandemic. Now, both new and old residents face fire seasons that increasingly will last from July through October or beyond, fueled by extreme drought and tinder-dry vegetation. With each new fire, the air they breathe will be hazardous to their health for days, weeks and perhaps months. As the air clears, the smell of smoke will linger in their homes and businesses. One can only imagine the choices they will need to make in coming years.

Friends and family with whom we have shared this story marvel at our willingness to travel at all, given the Delta variant and so-called breakthrough infections. Nora and I are fully vaccinated and look forward to the Pfizer and Moderna boosters in months to come. Our aborted vacation took us on four flights through four airports. All the passengers we saw wore masks (most covering noses as well as mouths), and there were no incidents. On a risk-benefit scale, we felt as safe – or certainly no less safe – than we would dining at any local restaurant or visiting any local theater or museum. By far, the worse danger was the Caldor Fire, to which we should have paid greater respect.

 

We invite your comments below.

5 comments to Smoke, Fire and Our Brief Vacation

  • Bill Green

    George — I sent an email to an old address for you, not sure if it’s still valid. Can I get your current email? Thx.

    Bill Green Yale ’62 Pierson College

  • Kent Hughes

    George,

    What an adventure. In visiting Pendleton, Oregon in 2919, we were forced to drive on the Washington side of Columbia River. The Oregon side had been closed. Even on the Washington side, driving through the smoke was like encountering a dense smog.

    By Pendleton, the smoke had lifted and we enjoyed a great rodeo.

    Glad you made the escape from South Tahoe. Very best, Kent

  • George Snider

    Thanks, Kent. We were glad too. Despite the cancellation of evacuation orders last weekend, the fire remains active and roads to the west remain closed. Bill Green (see above), who lives in the Sierra foothills between Tahoe and Yosemite,in past years has seen fires within a mile of his house.

  • Robert Breault

    The Fires on the West Coast
    And more thoughts

    I used to live in Las Vegas and on occasions I visited Lake Tahoe when there was no fire. It is a lovely area. And in my travels I’ve covered much of California, Oregon, and Washington by car. The mismanagement of the forest by the Forest Service has done an injustice in Oregon and California. I can remember seeing many square miles of forest land stacked six feet high in 6-to-12-inch diameter dead trees laying underneath the existing green 40’ pine trees. It was obvious to me that it was an accident waiting to happen. Sure, enough this year was the year to happen.
    Yes there’s a drought this year but Arizona has been in a drought for 20 years and we haven’t had the comparative fires in many years. The reason is because in the 1970s the Forest Service developed a let it burn policy during the wet season. If lightning struck and started a fire the fire service managed to let it burn the undergrowth. We had a few big fires but only a couple severe ones. The forests and animals have come back – for the most part.

    We currently have a non- native buffalo grass in the last couple of years that is a really combustible and hard to get rid of fuel, so we have our problems still. But there has to be some mentality that Mother Nature has been doing this for millenniums and there weren’t firefighters to put the fires out. I understand today protecting residential areas is a must but there is also sensible a time to let it burn so when the drought does come there will be less dead wood.

    Climate change is here, and it is real. I make no accusations as to its cause. But we need a GLOBAL outreach to deal with the droughts, floods, severe weather, and fires. Mother nature will have her way, so we need to prepare to deal with it ahead of time. It poses a great opportunity for jobs at all levels and new technologies yet unthought of, yes it will cost billions of dollars but as the saying does, “You can pay me now or pay me later.” But pay we will. I sense the world is under preparing for it. It is more than a 2021 issue. I see it as a great opportunity.

    Just my thoughts,

    Bob Breault ‘62

  • Steve Buck

    Dear George – I was amazed that you went to the Lake Tahoe area given the fires and glad that you got out safely. Good you raised the issue of viability of living in such conditions. Better forest management may help but it won’t solve the problem if we continue to do virtually nothing about climate change. Yes Bob, Mother Nature will have her way and we will think we can have it our way – heat up the planet thinking that there will be no consequences.

    Best,

    Steve

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