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Thousands forced to flee Lake Tahoe as California's Caldor Fire rages

The Caldor Fire, which has been burning since Aug. 14, has damaged more than 600 structures, with at least 18,000 more under threat.

As a wildfire pushed closer Monday, people in the California resort city of South Lake Tahoe were ordered to evacuate, officials said.

Mandatory evacuation orders covered all of South Lake Tahoe, a city of about 22,000 people. Residents and visitors were told to evacuate east on Highway 50 toward Nevada as the Caldor Fire raged nearby, the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection announced on social media.

By Monday night, the fire had crossed state highways 50 and 89 and burned mountain cabins as it churned down slopes toward the Tahoe Basin.

The Caldor Fire has proved so difficult to fight that fire managers pushed back the projected date for full containment from early this week to Sept. 8. But even that seemed optimistic.

The governor's office said Monday that nearly 30,000 people had been evacuated from El Dorado County, where the Caldor Fire is burning. It was unclear whether the figure included South Lake Tahoe numbers.

Residents are stuck in gridlock trying to evacuate as the Caldor Fire approaches in South Lake Tahoe, Calif., on Monday. At least 650 structures have burned and thousands more are threatened as the fire moves into the resort community.Josh Edelson / AFP - Getty Images

NBC Los Angeles reported that vehicles loaded with bikes and camping gear, some hauling boats, snaked through thick, brown air that smelled of fire. Police and other emergency vehicles sped by.

"This is a systematic evacuation, one neighborhood at a time," South Lake Tahoe police Lt. Travis Cabral said on social media. "I am asking you as our community to please remain calm."

South Lake Tahoe Police Chief David Stevenson said there were tense moments Monday, and he acknowledged the traffic that jammed on a highway getting out.

"I'm so appreciative that our citizens listened to the warning and the order and evacuated the city," Stevenson said at a news conference later that day.

Communities several miles south of the lake were abruptly ordered to evacuate Sunday, NBC Los Angeles reported.

Flames moved through mountains Sunday just a few miles southwest of the Tahoe Basin, where thick smoke sent tourists packing at a time when vacations would typically be in full swing ahead of the Labor Day weekend.

The Caldor Fire, which broke out Aug. 14, has burned more than than 291 square miles — an area larger than Chicago — as of Monday night, fire officials said. It was 15 percent contained.

At least 482 homes have been destroyed, and more than 33,600 structures were threatened, state department of forestry and fire protection, known as Cal Fire, said.

The terrain is making the fire difficult to contain, officials said.

Some areas of the Northern California terrain are so rugged that crews had to carry fire hoses by hand from Highway 50 as they sought to douse spot fires caused by erratic winds.

The threat of wildfires prompted the U.S. Forest Service to temporarily close all national forests in California. The closure begins at 11:59 p.m. Tuesday and goes through Sept. 17, including Labor Day weekend.

"We do not take this decision lightly but this is the best choice for public safety,” Regional Forester Jennifer Eberlien said in a statement Monday.

Gov. Gavin Newsom on Monday declared a state of emergency for the additional counties of Alpine, Amador and Placer because of the Caldor Fire.

Tim Stelloh contributed.