South Lake Tahoe residents have a lot to be grateful for. After all, they live in one of California's most coveted vacation spots, a year-round playground situated on Lake Tahoe's azure shores. This Thanksgiving, locals are feeling more thankful than ever. Their town survived the Caldor Fire that scorched homes in nearby Echo Summit, Phillips, and Grizzly Flats.
The fire began August 14 and quickly spread through much of eastern El Dorado County. By August 30, the blaze was so fierce that officials declared a mandatory evacuation for South Lake Tahoe's 22,000 residents. Families packed up their pets, family heirlooms, passports, and important papers and fled town.
Caldor burned right up to the city's outskirts, charring a total of 221,835 acres—about 345 square miles. But thanks to the efforts of more than 4,200 firefighters and emergency personnel from all over the West, every South Lake Tahoe house was saved.
When residents returned home, they hung homemade signs on almost every block: "Thank You Heroes."
As Thanksgiving approaches, we're highlighting a few heroes beyond the first responders who gave so much. The people showcased below are locals who love their community and found ways to serve it both during and after the Caldor fire.
Raising funds for the community
Sara Pierce teaches Spanish at Lake Tahoe Community College, and she's also married to a firefighter in South Lake Tahoe's Lake Valley Fire Protection District. When her husband left to battle the Caldor Fire, Pierce joined a group text thread with other firefighter spouses to share news and offer mutual support.
"In the first days, what we were hearing is that our guys were hungry," Pierce says. Due to the fire's fast pace, firefighters based near South Lake Tahoe couldn't get back to the Placerville base camp for meals.
Spouses and families sprung into action. They purchased carloads of groceries and relayed food to firefighters through city workers who were allowed in the evacuation zone. Pierce started a GoFundMe campaign to pay for the meals. "I thought we would get a few thousand dollars," she says.
Within a few days, officials set up an eastern base camp at Heavenly Ski Resort, and local firefighters received needed supplies. The spouses' work was done, but the GoFundMe donations kept pouring in.
"People love Tahoe and felt really helpless during the time they were out of their homes," Pierce says. "They were thankful for the firefighters' hard work. The GoFundMe became not just a way to give them food, it was a way to say thank you."
Ultimately, Pierce and her friends raised $85,000. On November 15, the Lake Valley Firefighter Foundation announced that it donated much of the funds to 27 community groups ranging from trail maintenance organizations to school PTAs.
"It's so exciting. That money is going right back into the community," Pierce says. "It's a testament to how this community works and to the unity that this fire ultimately gave us."
Caring for burned and injured animals
Denise Upton is the Animal Care Director at Lake Tahoe Wildlife Care, a rehabilitation center that takes in injured or orphaned wildlife. Since 1978, the facility has rescued, rehabilitated, and released more than 17,000 animals.
When the Caldor Fire advanced on South Lake Tahoe, Upton and her colleagues loaded 42 animals—coyotes, raccoons, porcupines, squirrels, and a bald eagle—into metal cages and a stock trailer and drove them to animal rehabilitation centers throughout Northern California.
"We'd been on warning for a few weeks, so we'd been practicing. We literally got everybody out of here within an hour. Two weeks later, we had to go pick them up and do everything in reverse," she says.
When the center reopened, Upton started caring for new patients—animals injured in the Caldor Fire.
"As soon as we got back, we got three calls on three different porcupines that had burns to their feet or burns to their faces. They don't move very fast, and they go up trees to get away from danger. So they got caught in the fire," Upton says.
The porcupines are healing well, Upton says, and will likely be released back into the forest in the spring. In the meantime, they have good company. The 27-acre rehabilitation center also houses Em, a bald eagle with a partially amputated wing, and Porky, a resident porcupine who charms Instagram followers with his deft manner of eating corn on the cob.
Making art to express gratitude
When the mandatory evacuation orders reached his neighborhood, Malcom Tibbetts and his wife packed what they could fit in their vehicles and drove away.
Tibbetts, a master artisan who creates intricate sculptures from wood, started thinking about the many people who were fighting to save his hometown of 50-plus years. After the danger passed, he decided to create a sculpture that paid tribute to their collective efforts.
"It turned out to be well over 300 names, and not just firefighters," he says. "There were 60 different police departments that sent people here to patrol the neighborhoods during the evacuation."
Tibbetts' 1,800-pound sculpture Heroes is now on display at the CoWork Tahoe building. He describes it as "an orderly tangle" of wood, with each piece bearing the name of an agency that assisted during the Caldor Fire.
Housing and feeding emergency personnel
Jerry Bindel, general manager of Forest Suites Resort, stayed behind during the evacuation to host emergency personnel and city workers at the hotel.
"We ended up housing about 65 rooms full of people," Bindel says. "They'd go out for 12-hour shifts during the day, then they'd come back. On that first day, we realized we didn't have food for them. The supermarkets were all closed. We didn't have any cooks because everyone was evacuated."
Bindel reached out to the local Safeway and Raley's stores, who donated all their perishables.
"So we were able to feed those folks," he says. "We opened up the bar and people had a good place to come back to."
Bindel says he was impressed by how city employees, private businesses, and first responders worked together during the crisis.
"Like in any community, local politics can divide us," he says. "But a situation like this shows us how quickly all that goes away. Everyone is marching down the same path together with the same goal in mind."
Rebuilding biking and hiking trails
Although South Lake Tahoe's homes and businesses survived the fire, some of its trails sustained heavy damage. That means there's work ahead for the Tahoe Area Mountain Biking Association (TAMBA), a volunteer-driven nonprofit that builds and maintains multi-use trails.
TAMBA estimates that more than 15 miles of trails will need extensive repairs, especially trails in the Meyers area including Corral Loop, Armstrong Pass, and Mr. Toad's Wild Ride.
Thea Hardy, who serves on TAMBA's board of directors, says South Lake Tahoe's trails "are 90 percent of what I love about living here. Tahoe trails are my gym, my social space, my skiing and dog-walking areas, my therapy."
She says that TAMBA crews have already started repair work, but much will have to wait until spring. The next steps will be assessing the extent of rebuilding and planning for large projects like replacing burned bridges.
"I can't wait to contribute to the restoration," Hardy says. "I'm so proud of our organization for calmly and humbly addressing the mountain of work that's ahead of us."