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'We've done everything we can': South Lake Tahoe begins road to recovery following Caldor Fire

“I’m 81 years old and I said, ‘Do I have to start over?’” a retired postal worker and South Lake Tahoe resident said. “I didn’t eat for three or four days until I realized I hadn’t eaten."
Retired postal worker George Ayers and his dog, Sonora, stand in the shallow waters of South Lake Tahoe on Thursday.Jim Seida / NBC News

SOUTH LAKE TAHOE, Calif. — The lake is no longer crystal clear and most of the businesses remain closed, but South Lake Tahoe is slowly, if cautiously, coming back to life in the shadow of the devastating Caldor Fire that has already claimed 800 homes.

Fire officials remained on high alert this week as thunderstorms swept through the region this week, threatening to stymie containment efforts and slow down repopulation plans.

Since it erupted Aug. 14, the wildfire has devoured more than 218,000 acres and destroyed a total of 1,000 structures in the Sierra Nevada. It was 65 percent as of Saturday, and some 10,000 people are still not able to return home.

“This is the most tense it’s gotten this week,” Jaime Moore, spokesman for the California Incident Management Team at the Caldor Fire, said Thursday while standing outside Hard Rock Hotel & Casino Lake Tahoe, which serves as a makeshift command center for firefighters and emergency personnel.

“We’ve done everything we can," he added.

Throughout much of the area, residents posted signs and even an inflatable bear thanking firefighters and other emergency responders for protecting their homes. But a palpable frustration lingered in the air as community members wonder when they can return to their old lives in this quiet, mountain hamlet.

"Fires were never a thing here," Jessie Marshall said of her hometown. "We just keep getting fires and they get worse every year."

Marshall now lives in Medford, Oregon, and returned to the area earlier this week to visit loved ones, many of whom had to evacuate or help others flee their homes. This is the second wildfire she has experienced this summer. Earlier, the Bootleg Fire in southern Oregon choked the air around her current home.

On Thursday, as firefighters and National Guard members strolled through the Hard Rock lobby, Marshall played poker and sipped on a cocktail. She was one of a small handful of people inside the casino not associated with the fire response.

About 10 minutes south at Regan Beach, retired postal worker George Ayers waded through the unusually cloudy waters of Lake Tahoe as his dog, Sonora, chased after a toy a few yards away.

All around him, a heavy blanket of smoke camouflaged the once pristine lake with a gray and brown haze that made the water difficult to see even from just a few feet away.

“This is one of the most beautiful places in the world and she’s not showing up today,” he said. “It just breaks my heart.”

Image: George Ayers and his dog, Sonora, walk through the shallow waters of South Lake Tahoe.
George Ayers and his dog, Sonora, walk through the shallow waters of South Lake Tahoe.Jim Seida / NBC News

The sky turned yellow, black and red as the fire crept closer to the lake in the first days that the fire threatened the area, Ayers recalled.

“It was like the world was on fire,” he said.

Ayers is one of thousands of residents forced from their homes after the voracious Caldor Fire swept through three counties in Northern California. This week, it finally slowed and allowed fire officials to lift or downgrade evacuation orders for many of the 43,000 people who fled their homes with only a few minutes to gather their belongings.

But the area is not out of danger yet as a warning for dangerous fire weather took effect for much of fire-scarred Northern California from Thursday afternoon through Friday. While the ongoing threat lingered, residents waited out both the fire and the passing storms from the safety of hotel rooms, evacuation shelters or the homes of loved ones.

Across the state, nearly 15,000 firefighters have made progress on 14 major wildfires and several smaller new fires, according to the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection, or Cal Fire. They include three of the state’s 20 largest fires on record.

Crews have faced historic drought, record temperatures and coronavirus outbreaks within fire camps. At the Caldor Fire, nine emergency responders have been injured, including one firefighter who sustained second- and third-degree burns throughout 20 percent of his body.

On Thursday, firefighters hurried to clear and remove fire-weakened trees in hopes of allowing residents back into their homes as early as this weekend. It’s a slow and arduous process, and while residents say they are grateful for the firefighters' efforts, many people are yearning for normalcy.

South Lake Tahoe resident Andres Delgadillo was forced to close his Mexican restaurant, Los Mexicanos, for a week and live with relatives in Vallejo, some three and a half hours away.

The mandatory evacuation was ordered a week before Labor Day, a typically busy weekend for his restaurant. Instead, Delgadillo closed his business, created a WhatsApp chat for his employees and monitored conditions from afar.

“There were police, there were firefighters with loudspeakers around the neighborhoods,” he said. “I tried to come back for my medicine but I was told to stay away.”

Andres Delgadillo, right, and Manuel Sanchez prepare an order at Los Mexicanos restaurant in South Lake Tahoe on Thursday. Jim Seida / NBC News

When he returned a week later, Delgadillo had to throw out food and other perishable goods from his restaurant and the neighboring market that he also owns. Because some of his employees are still under evacuation orders, he is filling in for five of them.

“Thankfully this summer was really busy,” he said of his business. “Hopefully we’ll be OK, but you never know. We were able to put a little [money] aside.

Meyers resident Sean Griffins, who works for South Lake Tahoe Refuse, is one of the few residents who can access his house throughout the day because he is considered an essential worker. On Thursday afternoon, he loaded clean laundry into his car and prepared to head back to the hotel room he is sharing with his wife and two dogs.

Image: Sean Griffins stands on the front porch of his home Thursday in Meyers, Calif.
Sean Griffins stands on the front porch of his home Thursday in Meyers, Calif.Jim Seida / NBC News

“We’ve had to clean up because the bears had a good time for a couple of days,” he said. “Last week, there was trash all up and down the street. They just destroyed everything.”

Just a few hours later, fire officials reduced evacuation orders in Meyers and residents were allowed to return home.

For Ayers, who evacuated his home in nearby Christmas Valley on Aug. 29, the waiting game is both frustrating and pricey. He and his dog have been living out of a hotel for nearly two weeks with just each other for company.

He had about 15 minutes to throw some clothes into large trash bags and flee his home of 21 years. All he could think about is what would come next.

“I’m 81 years old and I said, ‘Do I have to start over?’” he said. “I didn’t eat for three or four days until I realized I hadn’t eaten. Thank God for firefighters.”