Watch: Violinist plays at evacuation standstill as Caldor fire edges toward South Lake Tahoe
Mel Smothers found himself at a standstill Monday along Highway 50 as he evacuated South Lake Tahoe — along with thousands of others fleeing the approaching Caldor fire.
Realizing there was nothing else he could do, Smothers reached for his violin. And, in the hopes of calming himself, as well as those around him, he began to seek solace in his passion for music.
Stuck for an hour with his Golden Retriever by his side, and his wife following in another vehicle, he stood outside his Jeep and played his Nunes-Hornsteiner violin. Serenading his fellow motorists with the “Tennessee Waltz,” he said he hoped to bring them some joy and calm in a dire situation.
“I like playing a lot, so it didn’t take a lot of time for me to decide I didn’t want to waste time sitting in my car,” the 74-year-old, self-described “lifelong student,“ said Monday evening in a phone interview from Truckee, hours after he’d evacuated South Lake Tahoe.
He played as smoke and ash drifted down — a performance that earned him some smiles from other evacuees.
As of Monday, the Caldor fire had grown to 292 miles. It ignited on Aug. 14 in El Dorado County and is burning its way toward the California-Nevada border.
Firefighters contained 15% of its perimeter as of Monday and full containment is expected by Sept. 8, according to the U.S. Forest Service.
Smothers went to bed Sunday night while South Lake Tahoe was under an evacuation warning, but he woke up Monday to an evacuation order. Thousands fled, only to end up in hourslong gridlock on Highway 50.
At 1:30 p.m. Monday, a Press Democrat photographer at the scene reported evacuees heading east toward Stateline, Nev. had been stopped since noon in a line of vehicles stretched for at least 2 miles.
“All the streets were desolate except for one, and that’s the only road out of town,” Smothers said.
He was an hour into his extended delay on Highway 50 when he took out his violin, which is about 170 years old.
Smothers said a prominent New York City-based violin maker, Matthias Lehner, gave him the Nunes-Hornsteiner about four years ago. Smothers, who also paints, got it in exchange for one of his painting of Lake Tahoe, he said.
He’s dabbled with violins since the 1960s, but began playing regularly about six years ago. He said he performs in street concerts and at restaurants.
Evacuees waited two hours before moving at a slow pace and Smothers said it took four hours to go 5 miles from home.
His violin kept him occupied and other evacuees entertained during the long wait, but the experience was still nerve-wracking.
“There was a little bit of anxiety, there,” he said. “Like, is the fire going to catch up to us while we’re sitting there?”
Press Democrat reporter Matt Pera contributed to this story
You can reach Staff Writer Colin Atagi at firstname.lastname@example.org. On Twitter @colin_atagi