'It will be a challenge to come back from this': Wildfire threatens to forever change clear blue waters of Lake Tahoe

Lake Tahoe is being threatened by a raging wildfire. It threatens to destroy the beautiful alpine lake, which attracts approximately 15 million people annually to its cobalt waters, sandy beaches and remote mountain trails.
Caldor Fire in California grew Tuesday to over 191,000 acres, prompting 22,000 people in South Lake Tahoe's evacuation and partial shut down of the casinos in Stateline, Nevada.

The immediate concern for public safety, the thousands of homes at-risk, and the danger fire poses to the scenery and clarity around the lake's world-famous surroundings is not the only concern.

Wildfires have caused havoc across the West in recent decades, but it's difficult to imagine anything more disturbing than the fire that engulfed Lake Tahoe. Mark Twain called this "the fairest picture on the entire earth."

The Sierra Nevada's Sierra Nevada straddles the California/Nevada line. The top end is located 35 miles south from Reno, while the lower end, where the fire is threatening, lies about 100 miles east.

Sudeep Chandra (a biology professor at the University of Nevada in Reno) said that Lake Tahoe is "one of the most unique gems of lakes worldwide."

It is the deepest lake in the country at more than 1,600 feet. Tahoe measures 22 miles in length and has more than 70 miles of shore. Some of Tahoe's shore is undeveloped and protected for outdoor recreation. Others are tightly packed with homes, gift shops, and tall hotel casinos.

Caldor Fire:Roads were packed after South Lake Tahoe was ordered to evacuate. All national forests in California have been closed because of wildfires

It's a sad irony that wildfires are igniting trees intended to combat climate change.

Chandra stated that the waters are transparent and has "a very high level of transparency." You can see nearly 100 feet below the surface. It is the deepest lake in the world. It is important from a cultural perspective for the native peoples. It was home to the Washoe Tribe. It is now important for recreation as well as the local economy.

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The lake's shores are threatened by a fire.

South Lake Tahoe is located in California on the south shore. It is also the most populated area of the basin. The Caldor Fire is moving northwards upon this area.

Tahoe is a well-known destination for all year-round activities.

Nevada's side is popular for its casinos. Harrahs Lake Tahoe was closed to gambling by Harveys, Hard Rock Lake Tahoe, and Montbleu Casino Resort. There were also evacuation orders in South Lake Tahoe for many workers who needed to take care of their affairs at home.

More: Escape from South Lake Tahoe: Evacuees seek refuge from Caldor Fire, Northern Nevada

Caldor Fire updates - Highway 50 packed as thousands flee South Lake Tahoe

The warmer months are a great time to visit Tahoe for its beaches, hiking and biking trails as well as boating and other water sports like kayaking and paddleboarding. The famous Emerald Bay and the Tahoe Keys Marina were among the areas that were evacuated Monday.

Winter is a time when travelers seek deep snow at more than a dozen resorts around Lake Ontario. Some of these resorts offer stunning views of the deep blue waters from the slopes.

Already, flames have engulfed hillsides surrounding Sierra-at-Tahoe Resort. The firefighters fighting to contain the flames were captured on camera by Webcam.

Heavenly Ski Resort is located across the state line with trails and lifts in both California and Colorado. Monday's evacuation orders also included areas around its California operations.

Fire comes during busy season

Lake Tahoe's summer ends are a busy time for tourism. Tourism is the main industry in the region.

According to Carol Chaplin, President and CEO of Lake Tahoe Visitors Authority, the annual economic impact of the entire lake basin is $5 billion. Visitor services account for 62%.

Because of the smoke from the fires, Tahoe-area hotels saw their occupancy drop to 30% within the last week. This was before authorities asked tourists to avoid the area.

Chaplin stated that many hotels are now housing emergency workers or evacuees in the wake of the fire.

Hotels are normally between 80-90% full at this time of the year, just before Labor Day.

Tahoe draws most tourists from the San Francisco Bay Area. However, it is increasingly seeing visitors from all over the United States, and even from overseas, before COVID-19 travel restrictions.

Chaplin said, "We are an internationally destination," and is also a trustee at Reno-Tahoe International Airport. "Our biggest (international) markets were Australia and the United Kingdom. But we were beginning to see India, China and South America."

Despite limited international travel, Tahoe was much more popular than normal during the COVID-19 pandemic of the past two summers.

Chaplin stated that the increased interest in outdoor recreation areas during COVID didn't make it feel that way. He also said that the airport and lodging have been operating at levels higher than normal during the pandemic. "People are getting out on the trails and using them like never before."

Chaplin stated that her immediate thoughts were with those who have lost their homes to the fire and those who are still in its path. Chaplin is also concerned about the long-term effects on the travel industry and all those it employs.

Smoking: South Lake Tahoe is now quiet.

Many Californians travel to Lake Tahoe via Sacramento, U.S. 50. Several miles of this road was destroyed by the Caldor Fire.

Chaplin stated that road trips to the affected area after the fire has been contained would be different. It will be difficult to come back from this."

Lakes are famous for their water clarity

Tahoe is well-known for its clarity. Twain wrote in his 1872 book "Roughing It", that drifting in a rowboat on Tahoe was like floating from a balloon, because the water was so transparent.

Although the water has become cloudier from pollution and development, it is still clear enough for you to see the bottom of the lake at depths greater than 62 feet, according to the Tahoe Regional Planning Agency. This agency monitors the environmental quality in the basin. Last year's best measurements gave visibility of 80 feet.

Sean McKenna is the executive director of the Division of Hydrologic Sciences, Desert Research Institute in Reno. "It's a national treasure." "It has remained that way because of a concerted effort, management practices, and efforts."

Since the 1960s, maintaining the lake's purity has been a problem. The municipalities surrounding the lake have taken extra precautions such as pumping their wastewater outside the lake's basin to treat it.

The Tahoe Regional Planning Agency enforces various restrictions on development, sometimes to the chagrins of homeowners and developers. Their goal is to keep runoff out the lake and preserve Tahoe's clarity.

Storm water is the main focus of recent attention. It can carry with it nutrients and sediment that can impact lake clarity.

McKenna stated that post-fire hydrologic impacts are something McKenna is concerned about. "The soils are less permeable and that can lead to more runoff, debris flows, and more sediment. All year-round activities will be affected by a severe fire.

Researchers don't know if the effects will persist for years or if they will fade in a short time.

The Angora Fire destroyed 254 homes in Tahoe Basin, igniting just over 3,000 acres. The watershed's effects on this fire were examined and found to be minimal.

Chandra stated, "It's safe to say that it isn't an easy fix. It will require resources and energy beyond what we have contributed so far to restoration."

Chandra stated that Tahoe was the home of Lahontan cutthroat trout in ecological terms. Wildlife officials are currently reintroducing them to Tahoe's waterways. It also remains home to 10 endemic insects.

Chandra stated that the smoke from wildfires can have a significant impact on the lake.

The other concern is that wildfires in the basin could cause a burn scare, which can allow more nutrients to runoff into the lake, clouding the water, and providing nutrients for alga that may further impact the clarity.

Chandra stated that while these are difficult times for Lake Tahoe residents, the lake has shown remarkable resilience over the years. She cited the 1800s deforestation as one reason, which increased the amount of sediment in the lake.

He said that the problem was resolved in large part by the 1950s, when the forest had regrown.

Chandra stated, "We are in the same situation today. A catastrophic and in this instance unintended event is happening that has the potential of changing the long-term clarity in the lake."

"The science-supported management activities we need to plan following this fire can help us understand both the short-term and long-term effects on the lakes fragile clarity, and where we should go next."

Follow Ryan Randazzo @UtilityReporter

This article was originally published on Arizona Republic: Caldor Fire threatens Lake Tahoe's famed beauty