Flush your pipes and watch for bears: South Lake Tahoe returns from Caldor fire evacuation

By Jason Pohl

SACRAMENTO, Calif. — They fled South Lake Tahoe a week ago in a torrent as the Caldor fire rained ash onto an hourslong traffic jam and evacuees start-and-stopped their way to safety across the Nevada state line.

They returned on Monday in a trickle, one car at a time driving on mostly empty streets through the still-smoky city that's been deemed safe enough to live in again — for now.

An evacuation warning remains in place, downgraded from an order on Sunday. To the south, the Caldor fire continues burning through the hills. The fire, now 44% contained, has grown only slightly in recent days to 216,358 acres (338 square miles) as residents cautiously headed home.

Yet for all the hope and subtle signs that life in South Lake Tahoe would quickly snap back to something like normal, there's a realization that it'll take days or weeks get get back completely.

"Things are going slowly, which is great," Lindsey Baker, a city spokeswoman said Monday afternoon. "I think people are being cautious. We are still under a warning and that means that if conditions change, it can absolutely change back to an order."

"I think people realize that and they're taking their time coming back."

Trash services were back on schedule, with residents encouraged to sift through and properly dispose of spoiled food.

Barton Urgent Care was open 24 hours a day again, though the emergency department at the hospital remains closed.

Oft-present warnings about bears were more abundant than ever. South Lake Tahoe's online guide for returning home included no fewer than 19 references to bears, which have repeatedly been seen among the few creatures on the otherwise-deserted streets. Officials don't want to "make bears comfortable in our city," the website says.

"The bear thing is kind of a big deal," Baker said.

And then there's the air. It's still very unhealthy — the AQI on Monday afternoon was in the 200s. It might stay that way for a while.

It'll be an uneven few days of people returning. While the majority of the 22,000-person city is technically allowed back, along with those residing on Lake Tahoe's west shore, outlying areas of Meyers and Christmas Valley remain under orders.

Supply chains, including those for grocery stores and gas stations, have been disrupted, meaning people should stock up well before they get close to home. It could be days before services are completely ramped back up.

Adding to the reopening puzzle: Many employees are still under evacuation orders and cannot go back to work.

"We have to take that into consideration and really assess what we can open back up fully, and then what we need to open up in a phased approach," Baker said.

Those arriving home should run stale water out of their lines. Anyone who turned off their gas lines is encouraged to contact Southwest Gas to schedule a visit from a technician. Officials also encouraged anyone returning home to haul food waste — like what might've spoiled in a refrigerator — at designated drop-offs in town.

While the Caldor fire spared South Lake Tahoe, it has destroyed 714 single residences and 18 commercial properties to the west since it started Aug. 14. Another 74 structures have been damaged.

Cal Fire hopes to fully contain the fire by the end of September.

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