Tamarack Fire explodes to 21,000 acres, threatens Markleeville

by 24USATVJuly 18, 2021, 3 p.m. 19
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Get information and maps for the Tamarack Fire from the Humboldt-Toiyabe National Forest.

Live camera feeds can be seen here.

A wildfire burning in California's Alpine County ballooned Saturday, ripping through 6,600 acres in a day and threatening the county seat, Markleeville.

The Tamarack Fire, which was sparked by lightning on July 4, went from 500 acres to 6,600 acres on Saturday, according to the Humboldt-Toiyabe National Forest. It's now burned 21,000 total acres, or 32 square miles, and jumped Highway 89. There is 0% containment.

It has destroyed at least three structures, authorities said, and is burning toward the Alpine County Airport, about a 30-mile drive down Highway 89 from South Lake Tahoe.

"The fire continues to burn in a northwesterly direction, west of Markleeville towards the Highway 89 corridor," Humboldt-Toiyabe National Forest said in its most recent incident report. "The increase in fire activity forced an evacuation of Alpine Village and Woodfords [Saturday] morning. The fire crossed the East Fork of the Carson River near the East Fork Resort and moved into lighter fuels which aided in the fire’s growth to the north during the afternoon hours."

The fire was burning in remote territory for weeks before gusting winds Saturday exploded it into a dangerous conflagration. On July 10, when the fire was a quarter-acre wide, the Forest Service said it made a "tactical management decision is not to insert fire crews due to safety concerns, however, this is not an unresponsive approach. [The fire] is surrounded by granite rocks, a small lake and sparse fuels. Fire poses no threat to the public, infrastructure or resource values."

But that all changed Saturday. High winds, low relative humidity and incredibly dry timber and brush created dire conditions along the fire lines. A huge column of smoke can be seen all throughout the region, creating smoky conditions in the Tahoe and Carson Valley areas. The National Weather Service is warning new fire starts are likely over the next two days with dry lightning in the forecast throughout California.

This weekend was supposed to mark the 40th Death Ride, which attracts thousands of cyclists to the region each year to ride through three mountain passes in the so-called California Alps. It was canceled last year during the coronavirus outbreak. A notice posted on the 103-mile Death Ride's website said several communities in the area had been evacuated and ordered all riders to clear the area. The fire left thousands of bikers and spectators stranded in the small town and racing to get out.

Kelli Pennington and her family were camping near the town Friday so her husband could participate in his ninth ride when they were told to leave. They had been watching smoke develop over the course of the day, but were caught off guard by the fire's quick spread.

“It happened so fast,” Pennington said. “We left our tents, hammock and some foods, but we got most of our things, shoved our two kids in the car and left."

Alpine is California's least-populous county with just about 1,200 residents. Hundreds of them are now under mandatory evacuations.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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