As thousands of South Lake Tahoe residents returned to their homes Monday after evacuating during the Caldor Fire, officials issued a warning to be on the lookout for bears who have been wandering through the evacuated neighborhoods, ransacking trash cans and homes, scavenging for food.
Some residents returning home found they were not alone in their neighborhoods. Authorities also warned that in the absence of humans, bears had gone to town, spreading trash everywhere that must be picked up.
“The delicate balance between humans and bears has been upset,” and anyone who thinks a bear may have entered their home should call law enforcement, El Dorado County sheriff’s Sgt. Simon Brown said.
While bear nuisance calls are not unusual as the animals live in the nearby woods, those calls have been on the rise during the fire. Officials said they have received 15 calls of marauding bears over the last week.
While firefighters have been able to halt the fire’s advance toward South Lake Tahoe, the firefight does continue in other areas of the massive blaze.
The Caldor Fire stood at 216,358 acres by Monday morning with just 44% containment. Crews were still battling flames and hot spot flareups near Wrights Lake, Lower Echo Lake and amid the boulders and rocky crags of the Desolation Wilderness north of Highway 50 and the Caples Lake area near Kirkland.
“Although we didn’t have any major runs through the entire day (Sunday), there was a slight uptick in fire behavior,” West Zone Operations Chief Tim Ernst told crew leaders at their Monday morning briefing. “It’s a trend we need to watch over the next few days.”
Ernst said there was solid containment along the entire western edge of the fire where it began on August 14. Crews were responding to calls from returning residents of smoldering embers and identifying dangerous trees that had been weakened by the fire.
The firefight near Wrights Lake, Ernst said, was “extremely challenging” because of the terrain.
He added that the hot spot flare-ups around Caples Lake near Kirkwood “shows us we are not out of the woods yet” in containing the entire fire.
“The fire is pushing every one of the perimeters (near the Kirkwood Bowl),” Ernest said. “Even last night at 4 or 5 in the morning we had (hot) spots in there.”
Meanwhile, East Zone Fire Operations Chief Jake Cagle said rugged, rocky terrain was presenting a challenge with the fire in the Desolation Wilderness.
A specially trained team of federal mountain firefighters have been airlifted into the area.
“We inserted a crew specifically trained for wilderness areas,” Cagle said. “They are working in the Ralston Peak area now, going direct on the stuff in the Wilderness. Weather dependent, smoke dependent, we do have rappelers ready to rappel in there and support those firefighters.”
Rappeler firefighters descend down ropes from helicopters to battle wildfires in remote, inaccessible areas.
On Sunday, the evacuation order that forced the 22,000 residents to abandoned their homes as the Caldor Fire closed in were downgraded to warning for the Salt Lake Tahoe city limits.
Immediately, an orderly stream of vehicles headed into the city as the repopulation process got underway.
“So far it hasn’t been a mad rush of cars,” South Lake Tahoe Fire Chief Clive Savacool said at a Sunday evening briefing. “We’re happy to see that people are slowly trickling in, just because the city does need time to get ready.”
The sheriff said evacuation orders were still in effect for Fallen Leaf Lake, Christmas Valley, Meyers and North Upper Truckee.
At its peak, the fire had burned as much as 1,000 acres an hour and last month virtually razed the small community of Grizzly Flats.
But in recent days the winds had eased and thousands of firefighters took advantage of the better weather to hack, burn and bulldoze fire lines.