Photos of Lake Tahoe: Scenes from a Night on the Lines of Fire

SOUTH LAKE TAHOE, Calif .– The day is toxic. All of those tiny bits of ash combine to envelop Lake Tahoe, a gray miasma that warns of m...


SOUTH LAKE TAHOE, Calif .– The day is toxic. All of those tiny bits of ash combine to envelop Lake Tahoe, a gray miasma that warns of mega-fire just eight miles from shore.

But at night. The night is treacherous. Long after dark, Caldor’s fire engulfs the pines with a crackling sound that crescendos into a roar. The flames do not burn the branches loaded with needles so much as they cause them to disappear in a blinding flash.

On Tuesday and until the early hours of Wednesday, fire trucks and their teary-eyed crews turned hairpin, their headlights slicing through cloudy gray smoke like the beam of a lighthouse on a hazy morning.

Driving through the front tendrils of the Caldor blaze in the dead of night was wondering what flames could shoot out onto the road, what bush could suddenly ignite, what charred evergreen could crash to the ground.

“Sometimes you hear trees falling every five minutes,” said Jason Allen, a firefighter who cut through an ash-covered patch of soil to reveal marble-sized embers that a colleague put out with a hose .

Working by the light of his truck, Mr. Allen was in a wooded residential area a 10-minute drive from the shores of Lake Tahoe. This was the front edge of the Caldor fire, although there were so many small point fires that the landscape looked more like a series of large campfires than a singular front.

On Monday, embers had rolled down the steep slopes of the Tahoe Basin, igniting point fires that now had to be laboriously extinguished to prevent the fire from advancing towards the lake.

One of those embers had set fire to a tree a few hundred yards from where Mr. Allen had cut the ground. Without warning, the burning tree produced a shower of sparks, a brilliant Milky Way of fire.

“There is a bit of beauty in all of this destruction,” Mr. Allen said.

The potential for destruction is clear. The blaze threatens tens of thousands of what fire statisticians dryly call structures – wooden vacation cabins, Thai restaurants, churches, inexpensive motels and five-star resorts. Since the fire broke out in the Tahoe Basin on Monday, everything seems vulnerable, all the places that are crowding the lake.

On Tuesday evening, the blaze devastated stands of trees but did not appear to be moving in a consistent direction. A 40-minute drive from Lake Tahoe – in the hills across from Kirkwood Ski Resort – a leg of the Caldor fire aggressively burned entire hills, casting a reddish glow across the night sky.

Closer to the lake, the fire was quieter in the early hours of Wednesday, burning more slowly than the night before, when it made its way into the basin.

The fire has a way of moving before it reaches the shores of the lake. A golf course, an airstrip, the roadside lot of a lumber merchant cluttered with neatly stacked logs and, perhaps more ominously, a propane storage facility, all separating the flames from the boundary of South Lake Tahoe, the most populous city on the lake.

Given the erratic – and often terrifying – behavior of California’s megafires in recent years, it seems anyone is guessing when and if the fire will reach the lake.

On Tuesday evening, firefighters were taking a stand, believing they might be able to stop the flames in a creek along Highway 50, the road down the mountains to South Lake Tahoe.

A few minutes before midnight, teams of labor were clearing the brush under the glow of their headlights. A cacophony of chainsaws, generators and pickaxes hitting the ground rivaled the roar of diesel engines from fire trucks lined up along the road.

An engineer from a Tuolumne County firefighting unit drew water from the creek and redirected it through 2,000 feet of the fire hall to put out the burning trees.

Minutes away, a team from Clovis, a town in the Central Valley of California, went to investigate a bright spot fire burning in the woods. The captain of the unit, Rob Wright, decided to leave her alone.

“There are too many to turn them all off,” he said.

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Newsrust - US Top News: Photos of Lake Tahoe: Scenes from a Night on the Lines of Fire
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