By Julie W. Regan
All around my home in the southernmost tip of the Tahoe Basin, the butterscotch smell of pine sap wafts through the warming summer air, and from high mountain trails, the bluest of skies arch over Lake Tahoe’s resplendent cobalt surface. Days like this come with a deeper appreciation than they used to. Thinking back to August 2021, when the air was choked with smoke and the orange sun barely pierced through the dark sky, the feeling of Armageddon-like doom seems like a bad dream.
Those of us who lived through the mandatory evacuation of Christmas Valley in South Lake Tahoe can attest to the fact that the experience was real, not just a bad dream. For two agonizing weeks, residents were not allowed in or out of our holiday-named hamlet where street addresses like Santa Claus, Elf, and Blitzen usually bring year-round joy. We watched news reports of flames licking the edges of our community as the fire shot down Echo Summit, shattering all conventional wisdom that the wall of granite above our valley would stall the blaze. These days, in the age of megafires, conventional wisdom is out the window.
The Caldor Fire ignited in the middle of August, the same time as the Dixie Fire, which was burning north of Lake Tahoe. Both blazes pushed hazardous smoke into the Tahoe Basin. By late August, the smoke was off the charts — quite literally. On the national air quality index that grades air from 0 to 300+, Tahoe broke 700, earning us the dubious distinction of having the most polluted air in the United States.
My husband and his 87-year-old mother are both immunocompromised. With the horrendous smoke seeping into every unsealed crack and crevice in our beloved Christmas Valley home, we left just ahead of the evacuation order that eventually emptied all of South Lake Tahoe.
Our family experienced the same stress as 30,000 other South Shore residents who packed up their pets, precious belongings, and hit the road. I can still palpably feel the agony of deciding what to take — photos of my father who died when I was 7, or my artist husband’s original paintings? We packed both. What clothes to bring? What about crucial documents like passports, car titles, and tax records? We grabbed what we could but didn’t dillydally. Fortunately, we had go bags at the ready with crucial medicines, documents, and essentials.
We first stayed with friends in Sonoma County, then moved further north to the Mendocino area. The clean air along the coast was a welcome respite from the brutal assault of particulate matter in Tahoe. It was beyond surreal knowing that flames were at our doorstep and that life at the lake could be forever changed. Even though we lived through the 2007 Angora Fire, this was different.
As with many evacuees, work and life didn’t completely stop. The internet service where we stayed wasn’t the greatest, so every morning I drove into Mendocino and set up my Zoom station in our van. As then-deputy director of the Tahoe Regional Planning Agency (TRPA), I had to attend daily briefings from partner agencies such as the U.S. Forest Service, Cal Fire, the state of Nevada, and other first responder organizations. For TRPA the concern was getting its employees to a safe location, then moving irreplaceable project files, computer servers, and equipment out of the Basin. It was a herculean effort under the circumstances. We kept working online in the coming weeks, meeting public service objectives from far-flung areas throughout North America.
The fire raged on, and my family had to keep moving given the limited hotel availability all around Northern California. We ended up staying away from our Tahoe home the entire month of September; even though the evacuation order had been lifted, the smoke and our health concerns had not. We relied on media reports and updates from friends and neighbors on the status of our home and community. The anguish of not knowing whether you had a house to come home to was present and accounted for despite the need to soldier on.
As the fire came under control and the smoke cleared, the astonishing news reached us that not only had firefighters saved Christmas Valley and most of Lake Tahoe, but that not one home in our neighborhood was destroyed. The thought of the grit and determination that pushed those women and men to confront the Caldor Fire sends chills over me to this day. Our neighbors just over the hill were not so lucky. More than 1,000 homes and buildings, including a good portion of our treasured Sierra-at-Tahoe ski resort, burned in the 220,000-acre blaze. The fire scorched approximately 10,000 acres within the Tahoe Basin itself.
With a shift in the weather and the incredible work of fire crews, incident commanders said forest fuel reduction projects and homeowner defensible space helped slow the blaze and gave firefighters the security they needed to stay aggressive on the fire once it breached the Tahoe Basin.
The experience has given me a different respect for my job as well. So much preparation has taken place since the 2007 Angora Fire that made a critical difference in avoiding catastrophic losses. Over the last 15 years, working with its partners, TRPA helped secure $171 million in federal and state funding for hazardous fuels reduction. In that time, the Forest Service, states of California and Nevada, and local fire agencies have treated more than 71,000 acres of forest and conducted 63,000 defensible space evaluations. The Christmas Valley miracle, as some have called it, was made possible by scores of local and visiting firefighters and first responders, and by the extensive preparedness of our communities.
As with many natural disasters, the silver lining is the interminable spirit of goodwill that shines through the dark days of crisis. Offers of pet sheltering and driveway camping flew around our agency emails. Red Cross donations of clothing and food poured in for those displaced in Grizzly Flat. I was blown away by the kindness and generosity shown to my family during our evacuation. We met dozens of people who had fled to Tahoe during their devastating wildfires a few years back in the wine country and north coast.
That spirit of goodwill and connectedness among strangers is needed all the time, not just during disasters. As I continue to find ember remains in my Christmas Valley backyard, I’m committed to keeping the Tahoe Strong spirit alive and well.