CA wildfire smoke slams Tahoe economy during summer rush

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California Wildfires

The latest on the wildfires burning in California. Get updates on the Caldor Fire, Dixie Fire and others, including size, containment, evacuation orders and more.

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Fed up with poor fishing in the Sacramento Valley, river guide JD Richey sold his house a couple of years ago in Sacramento and his river boats.

He bought a $50,000 lake boat, a $461,000 home in South Lake Tahoe and started a charter fishing business to take clients out to catch trout and Kokanee salmon swimming in Lake Tahoe’s clear, blue water.

He was about to start booking clients, and then the pandemic hit. Fishing wasn’t considered an essential business, so he had to stop guiding for months.

Things were just starting to turn around this summer. He had a steady stream of clients. Then the fires erupted.

“Everything had gone great until we got smoked out,” he said. “It’s kind of zombie apocalypse-like up there.”

Now, all the lake’s boat ramps are closed and Richey is again turning clients away. The smoke was so thick he couldn’t see the island on Emerald Bay, when he recently drove his family down to Auburn to stay with his parents for a while.

“You can’t hardly see your hand in front of your face,” he said.

Blanketed by smoke and ash — and facing the possibly of future evacuations — the encroaching Caldor Fire has turned the south shore of Tahoe into a ghost town.

Highway 50 has closed, cutting off the main access route from Sacramento and the Bay Area. Nearby parks have been shut down as ash falls from the sky; outdoor concerts and other events have been postponed or canceled. Barely a week before Labor Day, tourism boards and hotel managers are telling people to stay away for the second time in as many years.

“It’s getting pretty quiet here,” said Carol Chaplin, who runs the Lake Tahoe Visitors Authority.

The Lake Tahoe Unified School District, in South Lake Tahoe, postponed the opening of the school year by a week, to Sept. 7.

Air quality was staggeringly bad in most of El Dorado County on Friday. Readings in Sly Park, near where the fire started, hit nearly 1,348 on the Environmental Protection Agency’s Air Quality Index before dropping considerably.

Venturing out on a day with the air that bad is the equivalent of trying to breathe in a desert sandstorm, said Dr. Kent Pinkerton, the director of the Center for Health and the Environment at UC Davis.

The air quality at South Lake Tahoe registered 160. Better than the earlier reading at Sly Park, but still incredibly dangerous.

“We know that an AQI that is above 151 is already unhealthy for all individuals,” Pinkerton said. “That should be sufficient clue that the closure of the community is really in the best interest of everyone.”

Tahoe area beaches, hotels, parks are closed

With smoke and other concerns in mind, the tourism authority announced late Thursday that it is “recommending visitors postpone any immediate travel plans to the area until further notice.” Some of the hotels were doing the same.

The Coachman Hotel in South Lake Tahoe said on its website: “We’re advising those considering travel here to make alternate plans. … Our cancellation policy remains flexible.”

The Hotel Azure, also in South Lake Tahoe, was trying to call people with reservations to get them to stay home. Only eight of the hotel’s 99 rooms were occupied Friday – and four of those rooms were being taken by helicopter mechanics and medical personnel involved in the firefight.

“Beaches are closed; all water activities are closed,” said a front-desk clerk. “Our air quality is really bad.”

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Lake Tahoe’s Emerald Bay is shrouded in smoke from the Caldor Fire, near South Lake Tahoe, Calif., Tuesday, Aug. 24, 2021. The massive wildfire, that is over a week old, has scorched more than 190 square miles, (492 square kilometers) and destroyed hundreds of homes since Aug. 14. It is now less than 20 miles from Lake Tahoe. (AP Photo/Rich Pedroncelli) Rich Pedroncelli AP

Numerous parks in the Tahoe area have closed, including Bliss State Park, Emerald Bay State Park, Donner Memorial State Park and the various campgrounds, hiking trails and other recreational areas operated by the Forest Service in the Tahoe basin.

The closures, which include all the national forests in Northern California, extend at least through the Labor Day weekend. Those who disobey the Forest Service closure order face fines of up to $5,000 for venturing in the woods. A similar closure order last September stayed in place for nearly two weeks.

At the same time, some of the ski resorts that are open for summer also have closed, such as Heavenly in South Lake Tahoe. Other amenities are affected, too. The M.S. Dixie, a 500-passenger paddle-wheel cruise ship that departs from Zephyr Cove, Nev., has canceled all voyages through Sept. 6.

Events postponed, canceled in Tahoe region

Among the events disrupted by the fire was the Tahoe 200 Mile Endurance Run, which has been canceled for the second straight year (Last year’s race was scrapped because of the COVID-19 pandemic).

“Although we are all devastated to be missing the race this year, our hearts go out to the communities hit by the fire, to the many people who have lost their homes and livelihoods,” race organizers said in a Facebook post.

Country musicians Eric Church and Dierks Bentley postponed concerts scheduled for the outdoor venue at Harveys Casino in Stateline, Nev. The rock band Phish moved a pair of shows, scheduled for early next week, from Harveys to the Shoreline Amphitheatre in Mountain View.

Comedian David Spade’s Saturday night show at the Montbleu Casino – which was originally supposed to take place in March 2020 but was postponed because of COVID-19 – has been postponed to sometime in 2022.

The fire arrived on Tahoe’s doorstep just as tourism was rebounding sharply to pre-pandemic numbers.

“We had a great summer … 2019 levels-plus,” Chaplin said. “It was really very strong.”

Ana Arneodo, a supervisor at Tahoe Sports Ltd. in South Lake, said that business has been booming at record levels since the start of the pandemic.

Waves of tourists fled to Tahoe to escape lockdowns and wealthy people have been buying homes, and they have lots of money to spend on the sporting goods equipment like the bikes, boards, hiking gear and ski equipment the locally owned business sells, she said.

Business has definitely slowed this week, however.

“It’s an outdoor recreational town, and, yeah, that’s not happening because of the air and the Forest Service also,” she said. “So, even if they wanted to hike, they couldn’t because it’s closed.”

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Ramona Trejo plays a slot machine at the Hard Rock Hotel & Casino Lake Tahoe in Stateline, Nev., Tuesday, Aug. 24, 2021. Trejo and other guests at the hotel plan to stay in the Lake Tahoe area despite the smoke from the encroaching Caldor Fire. (AP Photo/Sam Metz) Sam Metz AP

Ryan Sabalow covers environment, general news and enterprise and investigative stories for McClatchy’s Western newspapers. Before joining The Bee in 2015, he was a reporter at The Auburn Journal, The Redding Record Searchlight and The Indianapolis Star.

Profile Image of Dale Kasler

Dale Kasler covers climate change, the environment, economics and the convoluted world of California water. He also covers major enterprise stories for McClatchy’s Western newspapers. He joined The Bee in 1996 from the Des Moines Register and graduated from Northwestern University.

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