SOUTH LAKE TAHOE, California – The day feels toxic. All those tiny bits of ash that come together to cover Lake Tahoe, a gray miasm that warns of the mega-fire just eight miles from shore.
But the night. The night feels treacherous. Long after dark, the Caldor fire envelops pine trees with a crackling sound that escalates into a roar. The flames do not so much burn branches laden with needles, but make them disappear with a blinding flash of lightning.
On Tuesday and into the early hours of Wednesday, fire engines and their crews drove around hairpin bends with tired eyes, their headlights cutting through the cloudy gray smoke like the beam of a lighthouse on a foggy morning.
Traversing the front tendrils of the Caldor Fire in the middle of the night was wondering what flames might be shooting the street, what bushes might suddenly ignite, and what charred towering evergreens might hit the ground.
“Sometimes you hear trees falling every five minutes,” said Jason Allen, a firefighter who was chopping an ash-covered floor to reveal marble-sized embers that a coworker put out with a hose.
Mr. Allen worked in the light of his truck in a wooded residential area a 10-minute drive from the shores of Lake Tahoe. This was the leading edge of the Caldor Fire, although there were so many small point fires that the landscape looked more like a series of large bonfires than a single front.
On Monday embers had jumped down the steep slopes of the Tahoe Basin and ignited the point fires, which now had to be painstakingly extinguished to prevent the fire from advancing towards the lake.
One of these embers had set fire to a tree a few hundred feet from where Mr. Allen had chopped the ground. Without warning, the burning tree produced a shower of sparks, a bright milky way of fire.
“There’s a bit of beauty in all of this destruction,” said Mr. Allen.
The potential for destruction is clear. The fire threatens tens of thousands of buildings that fire statisticians call dry – wooden vacation cabins, Thai restaurants, churches, cheap motels, and five-star resorts. Since the fire landed in the Tahoe Basin on Monday, everything has seemed vulnerable, all the places that populate the lake.
On Tuesday night the fire devastated trees but did not seem to be moving in a uniform direction. A 40-minute drive from Lake Tahoe – in the hills across from Kirkwood Ski Resort – some of the Caldor Fire aggressively burned entire hills and cast a reddish glow in the night sky.
Closer to the lake, the fire was quieter in the early hours of Wednesday morning, burning more gently than the night before when it penetrated the pool.
Fire has a way to travel before it reaches the lakeshore. A golf course, a runway, a log merchant’s lot littered with neatly stacked logs, and, perhaps even more ominously, a propane storage facility – all separate the flames from the borderline of South Lake Tahoe, the most populous town on the lake.
Given the unpredictable – and often terrifying – behavior of the mega-fires in California over the past few years, it seems everyone can guess when and if the fire will reach the lake.
Firefighters stood Tuesday night, expecting they could possibly stop the flames on a creek along Highway 50, the road that runs from the mountains towards South Lake Tahoe.
Minutes before midnight, manual workers were clearing the bushes in the light of their headlights. A cacophony of chainsaws, generators, and picks hitting the ground competed with the rumble of diesel engines from fire trucks lined up on the side of the road.
An engineer from a Tuolumne County fire department took water from the creek and diverted it through a 2,000-foot fire hose to put out burning trees.
A few minutes away, a crew from Clovis, a town in California’s Central Valley, was investigating a brightly lit fire in the forest. The unit’s captain, Rob Wright, decided to leave it alone.
“There are too many of them to bring them all out,” he said.