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Many in Sonoma County watching Caldor fire with concern

“Fire makes me nervous,” Dan Kosta said.

How could it not? Kosta lost his house on Quietwater Ridge, off of Mark West Springs Road, in the 2017 Tubbs fire. Now a new fire is threatening his second home in South Lake Tahoe.

“I don’t think you get callous to it,” Kosta said Friday. “You definitely get categorized as a person who knows what loss is. But something like fire, that’s totally out of your control, it’s mind-wracking. It’s not fun to live with.”

South Lake Tahoe and nearby communities are currently in the path of the Caldor fire, which has been tearing through Eldorado National Forest since Aug. 14. As of Friday, it had scorched close to 145,000 acres and was only 12% contained. Winds continue to push its perimeter directly toward the lake.

It’s hard to watch for Sonoma County residents who make regular trips, or own second properties, or have relatives who live around Tahoe. Wine Country is itself a magnetic destination. But you can’t spend every day in your own garden, even if it’s Eden, and the Tahoe Basin is a popular haunt for local families, couples, backpackers and skiers.

“It’s a different kind of beautiful,” said Jim Leddy, who lives in Santa Rosa and has been visiting Tahoe for much of his life. “Sonoma County is one of the most amazing places, but what’s amazing about the Sierra is the hiking, the trees, the water. It’s a different, wonderful, beautiful planet.”

And like so many other corners of California over the summers and autumns of the past several years, it is under imminent threat. Small communities such as Cedar Grove, Pollock Pines and Grizzly Flats are under mandatory evacuation orders from the Caldor, and many fear South Lake Tahoe and surrounding developments might be next.

“Luckily, we got out right before everyone started panicking and (Hwy. 50) got backed up,” Birgit Nelson, a Pollock Pines resident, told the Press Democrat. “Right as we were coming out, police were coming out to direct traffic. People were panicking. It kind of felt like an apocalyptic scene, with people stocking up on supplies and everything.”

Leddy does not live or own property in the Tahoe Basin, but the region carries great meaning for him. He and two of his best friends, buddies since they attended El Molino High School together 40 years ago, have gone there together every summer for 35 years. They stay in a cabin owned by the family of one of the friends, Jim, whose father built the place by hand in 1967.

“Even though it’s a second home, emotionally it’s a place of rejuvenation that my two best friends and I share, a place of reflection. It’s very powerful,” said Leddy, who works for Legal Aid of Sonoma County after years in county government. “You see places on the news in Strawberry, Kyburz, White Hall. My grandparents used to take me to a different part of the lake in the ‘70s. I was lucky. The things you take for granted, to think they could all be gone, it’s hard.”

The cabin is in Meyers, the first community you reach after making the steep descent from Echo Summit on Hwy. 50. As of Friday, Meyers was less than a mile from the highway road closure and the evacuation-warning zone, and just a couple miles from the mandatory zone.

“It’s heartbreaking, because you get to know your neighbors, you go into the cafes and meet those people,” Leddy said. “Now they’re losing August and September, two of their biggest months for tourism. And a lot of them have already lived through the Angora fire, and the threat of that coming down into town.”

The Angora, now largely crowded from public memory by the massive conflagrations that have hit California every year since 2015, was a 2007 burn that started very close to Meyers and wound up destroying 280 buildings.

That fire blackened an area where Kosta’s house now sits. “It’s in a neighborhood, but what makes me nervous is it’s right against the forest,” he said. “Literally, my backyard is the forest.”

Kosta, who used to own Kosta Browne Winery and now is a partner in a small winery called AldenAlli, has a Nest camera at his Tahoe home that measures air quality. (Friday afternoon, the index was at a perilous 473 in South Lake Tahoe, deep into the Hazardous category.) He follows Cal Fire and newspaper reports for updates on the Caldor’s advance.

“The Tubbs fire was so fast, we had to get out at 1 in the morning. We barely made it out,” Kosta said. “This is slow and agonizing because we are not there.”

Leddy is also checking the AQI daily. His annual buddy trip survived the COVID pandemic; he and his friends went to Tahoe during a brief window of low transmission rates last summer. He’s wondering if wildfires will end the streak in Year 36.

John Vallelunga is pretty sure his streak will be halted after “20-some odd years.” He and his wife, who live in Santa Rosa, don’t relish Tahoe’s outdoor recreational opportunities as much as Leddy and Kosta. But the place still draws them every summer. They like the quiet and the restaurant options of South Lake Tahoe. Vallelunga will sneak away to gamble a little after dinner sometimes.

The couple booked a stay in a timeshare that begins next Friday.

“We’ll hold out as long as possible,” Vallelunga said. “But it doesn’t look like the fire will be out by then. The only thing we can hope for is there’s a hurricane in Mexico. Maybe it will send some rain north.”

If they can’t go, they’re out the $1,000 maintenance fee for the timeshare.

A small price, perhaps, compared to the loss of home and belongings that so many in Wine Country have suffered in recent fire seasons.

Kosta knows that loss, and he isn’t the only one. His neighbors on Quietwater Ridge included Vern and Terrie Rook; they, too, had their house taken by the Tubbs fire. And they preceded Kosta to his development in South Lake Tahoe. The Rooks live right around the corner, in fact. And unlike Kosta, Tahoe is now their main residence.

“Other people are having their primary home burned,” Kosta said. “Those are the people I’m thinking of. This is a second home for me.”

People affected by fire often seem to take particular interest in others who are undergoing similar trauma. Our collective vulnerability might cause anxiety. It can also inspire empathy.

“The unfortunate part is you have all these opportunities to be empathetic,” Kosta said. “This is like a lifestyle now. The Tubbs fire set records, and now it’s way down the list. That’s depressing.”

You can reach Phil Barber at 707-521-5263 or phil.barber@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @Skinny_Post.

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