‘It happened so fast’: Wildfire explodes near Lake Tahoe, forcing hundreds to flee

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  • Mandatory evacuations were ordered for more than a half dozen communities near Markleeville.
  • Wildfires burning in 13 states had torched more than 1,800 square miles.
  • Wildfires in the West are being fueled by intense heat waves this summer.

A wildfire roaring near Lake Tahoe that forced hundreds to flee blew up to cover 30 square miles Sunday, one of more than 80 major fires raging across the hot, drought-stricken West, fire officials said.

Authorities at Humboldt-Toiyabe National Forest issued evacuation orders for more than a half-dozen communities and two campgrounds near tiny Markleeville, California, a town of less than 200 people about 35 miles southeast of Lake Tahoe. The Tamarack Fire, which ignited two weeks ago, forced closure of a highway and some smaller roads.

Wildfires burning Sunday in 13 states torched more than 1,800 square miles from Alaska to California and Minnesota to New Mexico. Almost 20,000 firefighters worked to keep the blazes at bay.

Among the other major fires, the Bootleg Fire in southern Oregon consumed more than 460 square miles and destroyed at least 67 homes. The fire, which was 22% contained, forced 2,000 people to evacuate and threatens 5,000 buildings.

The Beckwourth Complex Fire in California near the Nevada border burned more than 160 square miles and was more than 70% contained.

The Tamarack Fire left a scorched car on the roadside in the Markleeville community of Alpine County, Calif., on July 17.

In Nevada, more than 500 firefighters battling the Tamarack Fire faced a Red Flag Warning, meaning warm temperatures, very low humidity and strong winds were conspiring to increase risk.

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“Firefighters will continue to actively suppress the fire where they can do so safely,” fire  managers said in an update. “Crews will be focusing on preserving life and property with point protection of structures and putting in containment lines where possible.”

The fire was so fierce that a bike race called “Death Ride” could take no chances.

“We are very saddened to report that due to the fast-growing Tamarack Fire, tomorrow’s Death Ride has been canceled,” race organizers said on their website. “Please pray for the community of Markleeville, and the first responders from multiple agencies who are working to contain the fire.”

Residents, would-be bike racers and spectators were forced to flee. Paul Burgess, who drove from Los Angeles to participate in the ride, said most of the cyclists he met were thankful to steer clear of the fire danger.

“They just said this is just how it goes,” Burgess said. “It’s part of climate change to a certain extent, it’s part of just a lot of fuels that are not burnt, the humidity is low, the fuel moisture levels are low, and … around the state, many parts of it are much like a tinderbox.”

Kelli Pennington and her family were camping near the town Friday when they were told to leave.

“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.”

Contributing: The Associated Press