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Coming hours are make or break for Lake Tahoe resort city, fire officials say

<i>Justin Sullivan/Getty Images</i><br/>The Caldor Fire burns homes near South Lake Tahoe
Getty Images
Justin Sullivan/Getty Images
The Caldor Fire burns homes near South Lake Tahoe

By Aya Elamroussi, Joe Sutton and Theresa Waldrop, CNN

Firefighters have been able to make some headway against the Caldor Fire around South Lake Tahoe, and the popular California tourist town may, with luck, be spared from flames — if conditions Wednesday night remain favorable, a fire official said.

The fire was up in the mountains, away from the main portion of the town, “which is a very good thing,” Dave Lauchner, a spokesman for Cal Fire Team 6, told CNN.

“We got lucky yesterday. The red flag warning was there, but the conditions weren’t as bad as predicted. So we were able to do a lot of good things to protect the community of South Lake Tahoe.”

“At this point, we’ve been able to keep it out of South Lake Tahoe,” Lauchner said. “We’re hoping to keep it up on the hill.”

But Wednesday could be a make or break day for the effort, he said.

The red-flag warning expires at 11 p.m. PT. The warning is issued when an area is expected to experience hazardous fire weather that could increase activity.

“I think it can breathe a sigh of relief,” Lauchner said of the area. “But you don’t want to assume you’re completely out of the woods yet. It’s still a long firefight ahead of us. There’s a lot of things this fire can still do.”

The fire forced the evacuation of thousands of people from South Lake Tahoe and is threatening more than 34,000 structures after destroying hundreds of homes, officials have said.

The city, normally bustling with vacationers, was a gray ghost town Tuesday, with empty parking lots, closed roads and shuttered businesses as the fire’s thick smoke hovered over the area.

“Tonight and tomorrow (Wednesday) are critical days,” city spokesperson Lindsey Baker told CNN.

More than 53,000 people have been placed under evacuation orders, a spokesperson for the California Governor’s Office of Emergency Services told CNN, as the massive blaze marches closer to the Lake Tahoe Basin.

The fire, which was only 20% contained Wednesday morning, according to Cal Fire, has burned more than 204,000 acres. “The fire remained active overnight due to the extremely poor humidity recovery and warm temperatures,” said a Cal Fire incident update.

“We’re just right now trying to see what happens with the structures and businesses in our community and our homes,” South Lake Tahoe Mayor Tamara Wallace told CNN.

“There was a huge amount of granite between the fire and us and I woke up on Sunday and it had, it had jumped that granite and now it is in the Lake Tahoe basin and homes are threatened and our community is threatened and I never thought that was possible,” Wallace said.

Some 20,000 South Lake Tahoe residents evacuated Monday, said Wallace, praising the efforts.

“There was a lot of traffic, but we were able to evacuate our city in just five hours, which is good,” she said. “We do have a very important holiday weekend. But we have good summers so Labor Day is sort of the last hurrah and, honestly, people’s lives are more important than worrying about tourism.”

In neighboring Nevada, Gov. Steve Sisolak declared a state of emergency Monday in anticipation of flames crossing state lines in the coming days. California Gov. Gavin Newsom declared a state of emergency for the counties surrounding Lake Tahoe. He was expected to visit the area Wednesday.

The area could see gusty winds join forces with extremely dry fuels and low humidity to result in critical fire weather conditions, the National Weather Service said.

“New or existing wildfires will have the potential for rapid spread and growth under these conditions,” the service said.

Caldor, which ignited on August 14, has already destroyed 544 homes and 12 businesses, according to Cal Fire.

At least five people were injured including three first responders, according to Cal Fire, which estimates full containment by September 13.

The fire is being fueled by dangerously dry conditions as California suffers through an extreme drought, driven by climate change.

“We’ve seen unprecedented things this year,” Lauchner said. “Unprecedented fire, fire conditions we’ve never seen, I haven’t seen in the 22 years I’ve been doing this.”

Parts of the Caldor Fire saw dramatic increases in activity early Tuesday morning due to strong winds and low humidity, Cal Fire said.

“The fire continues to back down towards Hwy 50 in multiple locations and continues to threaten control lines [in some areas],” the fire agency noted.

The fire is now California’s 17th largest wildfire on record. Officials expect firefighting conditions to improve by Thursday.

15 active fires in California

There are 15 large fires active in California and two more burning in Nevada, according to the National Interagency Fire Center.

California’s wildfire season been devastating this year, which saw 1.76 million acres up in flames from 6,913 fires for far, Cal Fire said.

The US Forest Service moved to temporarily shutter all national forests in California as resources are stretched this and no relief from the fire-fueling conditions is in sight. Those closures will remain until at least September 17, the US Forest Service Pacific Southwest Region said Monday.

The Tamarack Fire, which burned 68,637 acres and is 82% contained, is just southeast of the Caldor Fire. “We are going to try to steer into the Tamarack Fire. It’s a fresh burn and if we get it steered there, whatever portion we get, turn into it, that basically stops the spread of the fire, so that’s a very valid tactic we’re actively trying to do,” said Cal Fire Operations Section Chief Erich Schwab.

California’s largest active blaze — the Dixie Fire — has charred 844,081 acres across five Northern California counties over the past 47 days. It was 52% contained on Wednesday.

Correction: An earlier version of this story misstated the number of those under evacuation orders. It is more than 53,000 people.

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CNN’s Stella Chan, Joe Sutton and Kelly McCleary contributed to this report.

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