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Winds Have Been High As The Caldor Fire Threatens California's South Lake Tahoe

AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

Now for the latest on the massive Caldor Fire that's threatening Lake Tahoe. NPR's Kirk Siegler is in the town of South Lake Tahoe, which evacuated yesterday, and he's been watching the fire blow across the crest of the Sierra Nevada mountains and toward densely populated areas around the lake.

Kirk, I just want to start with how close you are to the fire at this point. And does this look like it's beginning to move towards town?

KIRK SIEGLER, BYLINE: Well, everyone up here who is left is close, and that's a very real scenario, Audie, because of the spotting. The embers are the big part of the story right now. Where I've been today down in the village of Meyers, about a mile or two from the main flank of the fire, there was spotting out in front of it. And by that, it's the embers shooting out and starting new fires out in front of the main flank. Firefighters are chasing these everywhere today. The wind is just awful - you may hear behind me as we talk - and that's making things even more dicey. So the worry here and basically everywhere is - around the basin is that one of these embers, you know, drifts in, catches a pine needle, say, in a home's rain gutter or up on a roof, and then starts jumping from house to house and burning homes and buildings.

CORNISH: But just so I'm clear, has everyone left and evacuated? What's the state of things?

SIEGLER: Pretty much so - you know, I can't overstate how eerie it feels to be here in South Lake Tahoe right now. It's basically a deserted city, you know, apart from the odd police car that will drive by me here or the firetrucks of course. I'm in an abandoned parking lot of a shopping center. All the hotels are shut. The restaurants are shut. The neighborhoods have emptied out for the most part. And you get the feel that people are bracing for the worst. There are some sprinklers running, and the air is, frankly, dangerous to breathe. I met Bob Child, who is one of a few people who stayed behind to try to save his home and douse any of these spot fires that may land on his property. He's a retired firefighter. He's lived up here in Tahoe for 50 years. And he told me he's got a generator and well water and a month's supply of food.

BOB CHILD: Some of my family thinks I'm crazy, but I tell them, I might be crazy, but I'm not stupid. I know when to get out, but hopefully it won't come to that.

CORNISH: And, of course, people sometimes stay for many different reasons, not everyone as resourced - right? - as Bob Child. I want to talk about more populated neighborhoods because if the fire moves in that direction, how does that change the firefighting response?

SIEGLER: Well, it becomes an urban firefight. It changes it completely. But this is a pretty familiar scene, especially here in California now. The good news, Audie, is that because it's mostly all emptied out, you know, firefighters can stage in places and get trucks in here much easier than, say, if it was happening while Tahoe was being evacuated. So that's the good news. This kind of major fire is something people around this basin have been planning for and worried about for years. I've been driving around today. You've got all these neighborhoods in the forests, lined with those signature famous pine trees of Lake Tahoe. And you do see a lot of homes and motels that are older, and some don't look to code, built out of wood, but I also was struck not seeing a lot of brush or a lot of major fuels, really, on the ground. It's pretty cleared out. So all the work they've been doing here is definitely being put to the test.

CORNISH: Plus, the other factor is the weather, right?

SIEGLER: That's right. It is extremely windy and erratic winds, and there's a red flag warning - one of those dreaded warnings for extreme fire behavior - lasting through tomorrow night. And, you know, even if, or when, the winds die down, you're just not going to be able to put a fire like this out. The latest estimates we got this morning were even just getting containment out by mid-October. You know, Audie, climate change is a real big deal, and these fires are huge. You add into that past forest management decisions that left these forests way overgrown in the Tahoe Basin and all around the West, and it's a crisis. This fire is going to burn probably until it snows.

CORNISH: That's NPR's Kirk Siegler. Thank you for your reporting. Please stay safe.

SIEGLER: You're welcome. Glad to do it.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.