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SOUTH LAKE TAHOE, Calif. — Thousands of people rushed to leave South Lake Tahoe on Monday as the entire resort city came under evacuation orders and wildfire raced toward Lake Tahoe.
Evacuation warnings issued for the city of 22,000 on Sunday turned into orders Monday. Vehicles loaded with bikes and camping gear and hauling boats were stuck in traffic, stalled in hazy, brown air that smelled of campfire. Police and other emergency vehicles whizzed by.
U.S. Highway 50 was closed to westbound traffic at at Golf Club Drive.
“This is a systematic evacuation, one neighborhood at a time,” South Lake Tahoe Police Lt. Travis Cabral said on social media. “I am asking you as our community to please remain calm.”
The new orders came a day after communities several miles south of the lake were abruptly ordered evacuated as the Caldor Fire raged nearby.
South Lake Tahoe’s main medical facility, Barton Memorial Hospital, proactively evacuated 36 patients needing skilled nursing and 16 in acute care beds Sunday, sending them to regional facilities far from the fire, public information officer Mindi Befu said. The rest of the hospital was evacuating following Monday’s expanded orders.
South Lake Tahoe Mayor Tamara Wallace prepared to leave with her husband, youngest child, dogs and items given to them from their deceased parent — objects that can’t be replaced.
She thought the Caldor Fire would stay farther away. Fires in the past did not spread so rapidly near the tourist city.
“It’s just yet another example of how wildfires have changed over the years,” she said. “It’s just a culmination of 14 to 18 more years of dead trees, the droughts we’ve had since then, those kinds of things.”
The region faces a warning from the National Weather Service about critical fire weather Monday and Tuesday.
The fire destroyed multiple homes Sunday along Highway 50, one of the main routes to the lake’s south end. It also roared through the Sierra-at-Tahoe ski resort, demolishing some buildings but leaving the main buildings at the base intact.
Fire churned through mountains just a few miles southwest of the Tahoe Basin, where thick smoke sent visitors packing at a time when summer vacations would usually be in full swing ahead of Labor Day weekend.
There were reports of cabins burned in the unincorporated community of Echo Lake, where Tom Fashinell has operated Echo Chalet with his wife since 1984. The summer-only resort offers cabin rentals, but was ordered to close early for the season by the U.S. Forest Service due to ongoing wildfires.
Fashinell said he was glued to the local TV news. “We’re watching to see whether the building survives,” he said.
The last major blaze in the area took South Lake Tahoe by surprise after blowing up from an illegal campfire in the summer of 2007. The Angora Fire burned less than 5 square miles but destroyed 254 homes, injured three people and forced 2,000 people to flee.