A massive, raging wildfire raced toward holiday hotspot Lake Tahoe on Tuesday, just hours after thousands of people were forced to flee a nearby mountain resort town.
The popular getaway of South Lake Tahoe, home to some 22,000 residents, cleared out under evacuation orders as the two-week-old Caldor Fire tore through drought-parched forests.
“There is fire activity in California that we have never seen before,” Cal Fire Chief Thom Porter said in a briefing Monday.
Overnight, the blaze had raced eight miles in one direction and seven miles in another in an area northeast of Highway 50, one of the main routes out of the lake’s south end, officials said.
With the fire approaching, evacuees were trapped in gridlock traffic on Highway 50, stalled as smoke clouded the area’s normally pristine skies.
Photos showed motorists jumping out of their vehicles and wandering into the middle of the road to gawk at the bumper-to-bumper chaos.
Other photos showed apocalyptic scenes of a house engulfed in flames, a lone car driving along a road with a backdrop of thick smoke, and red hot fire ripping through bushland.
Ken Breslin was stuck in the traffic jam less than a mile from his home in South Lake Tahoe, with only a quarter-tank of gas in his Ford Escape.
“Before, it was, ‘No worries … it’s not going to crest. It’s not gonna come down the hill. There’s 3,500 firefighters, all those bulldozers and all the air support,’” he said.
“Until this morning, I didn’t think there was a chance it could come into this area. Now, it’s very real.”
The threat of the wildfire had forced the US Forest Service to take the unusual step Monday of closing all 18 national forests in California until Sept. 17.
“We do not take this decision lightly but this is the best choice for public safety,” Regional Forester Jennifer Eberlien said.
The Caldor Fire broke out Aug. 14 and has since scorched nearly 292 square miles.
The blaze was only 15 percent contained after destroying more than 600 structures and threatening 20,000 more, officials said.
More than 15,000 firefighters were up against dozens of California blazes, with crews recruited from Utah, Washington, Wisconsin and West Virginia, said Mark Ghilarducci, director of California’s Office of Emergency Services.
With Post wires