Lake Tahoe Basin, Summer 2021 – Breathing Smoke and Waiting for Fire

The view from the west side of Lake Tahoe on August 30, 2021. A plume from the approaching Caldor Fire rises above the haze - photo: Tim Hauserman

It’s August, normally a busy time at Lake Tahoe. The other evening I took a stroll down to my local west shore beach. Usually several dozen people would be there, waiting for the pinks of alpenglow to light up the sky above the lake. But on that evening, I looked down the beach and couldn’t see another soul.

The next day, driving along Highway 89, the normally busy Truckee River bike path had only two riders. Why? Because the smoke from the Caldor fire is so thick that even while wearing a mask your mouth starts to taste like you licked an ash tray, and your lungs start crying out for fresh air.

Almost worse than the smell is the antsy, gasping for air feeling I get when breathing the thick smoke. It leaves me both physically and emotionally frantic. This is especially challenging for us exercise-aholics who must get out there on a regular basis, and are now stuck inside under smoke house arrest for days on end. There are only so many crossword puzzles, yoga classes or attempts to remember old karate moves you can do. I even tried dancing to the Rolling Stones in the living room.

I want to get out there but know I will pay the price. The other day, an errant sprinkler sent me outside for about five minutes in the 600 AQI (better known as “off the chart freaking hazardous”). When I came inside, my clothes smelled like I’d been hanging out for days in a smoky casino bar from the 1970s and my mouth tasted like I’d been eating handfuls of Harry Potter’s Ash Bucket jelly beans.

The physical and psychological impact is high on all of us who live in the smoke, but the impact on local businesses is especially high during a usually busy time of year. Many businesses are still trying to recover from Covid shut-downs and a shortage of employees because of a lack of workforce housing. Now they have limited hours, both for the safety of their employees and because the smoke has cleared out most of the visitors.

With the potential for the Caldor fire reaching the Tahoe basin, and the known challenge of evacuating the Tahoe basin during the busy tourist season, many locals are relieved that the number of visitors in the area is low right now. Aside from the concern about evacuation, it would be a crazy time to be a tourist in Tahoe. Thick choking smoke over a gray lake is not exactly what pops up when we think of the beauty of Lake Tahoe.

Some locals have joined the second homeowners and tourists who have fled the smoke. Facebook is lit up with friends who have temporarily discovered blue skies and clean air on the coast or just about anywhere else a few hours from here. I joined this group for a one-night escape to Folsom. Getting out of the smoke was a godsend. There was, however, no escaping thoughts of the fire since the hotel where I stayed was full of Cal-Fire folks taking a break for the night, as well as some Highway 50 evacuees.

Looking south from the west shore of Lake Tahoe on August 29, 2021 – photo: Tim Hauserman

About 30 Cal-Fire trucks occupied a corner of the parking lot. Some were so fresh off the line they were still striped by fire retardant. Joining me in the elevator of the Lake Natoma Inn were two fire fighters, and a woman who had evacuated from the fire. She was carrying two large glasses of wine. Not sure if that will be enough. It was then I remembered that while the smoke was difficult to cope with, it paled in comparison to those who are fighting to save people’s homes, and those who have been evacuated and hope when they return their homes will be intact.

I thought about my nephew who recently lost his cabin in the Tamarack Fire, and my grand-nephew who rallied a crew of friends to remove dozens of trees from around his recently purchased house in Twin Bridges. He is hoping his efforts will create enough defensible space to save the cabin. He is getting married on September 4th and hopes to carry his bride across the threshold.

Spending two days riding a bike in clear air on the American River Parkway was a huge load off my lungs and more importantly my psyche. I felt human again, and it was such a relief to be on the trail with so many other folks who were just doing their normal life thing, outdoors in the fresh air exercising along a bustling, blue river. You know, what we all want to be doing on an August day. After a 44-mile ride my body was tired, but my mind and lungs were happy.

It has felt particularly apocalyptic lately at Tahoe, but there is a world out there a hundred miles or more away that is not on fire. Hopefully we can all return to that world sometime soon. I have delicious fantasies of a drenching rain putting out the fires and clearing out the air. And while that is unlikely here at the cusp of September, I try to remember the words my daughter used to always say when she was seven: “Hey, it could happen.”

Meanwhile, I made plans to escape to the coast to get another shot of sanity and clean air. Excited by the possibility to smell the salt spray instead of the burning of trees, while remaining fearful that the fire will continue to burn and march its way closer to our homes. But the fire raised its ugly head and was set to enter the Tahoe basin on the morning we were to depart. We cancelled the trip to take more steps to be ready in case evacuation is needed here on the west shore. Another reason we didn’t leave is that Tahoe has been one of my closest friends my entire life, and I feel like she is in the hospital now, and I need to stay close until it is my time to evacuate.


Tim Hauserman is a nearly life-long resident of North Lake Tahoe. He wrote the official guide to the Tahoe Rim Trail, the 4th edition of which was published last July. He also wrote Monsters in the Woods: Backpacking with Children and writes frequently on a variety of topics. In the winter, he runs the Strider Glider after school program at Tahoe Cross Country Ski Area. Support his work in the Ally.