Tahoe visitors, Sierra residents endure smoky days as Rim Fire rages

phecht@sacbee.comAugust 28, 2013 

At more than 7,000 feet in the Sierra Nevada, Echo Summit is the highest point on Highway 50 in California. But its spectacular views went missing Tuesday.

A blanket of gray smothered any trace of the mountain range's vast emerald forest or the sapphire-blue water of Lake Tahoe beyond. Down in the Tahoe basin, the mountain peaks circling North America's largest alpine lake also disappeared from sight.

They were hidden by the far-reaching smoke of the mammoth Rim fire that has burned more than 180,000 acres near Yosemite and sullied the Sierra – from the foothills to Lake Tahoe and Reno – with a wavering atmospheric blight.

"Today is one of the worst days," said Stockton resident Joannie Schwartz, who with her husband, Tim, nonetheless went out for a morning bicycle ride and then faced down the afternoon gloom by drinking Rum Runners and eating mahi-mahi tacos at the Camp Richardson Resort in South Lake Tahoe.

"You can't see the mountains. It looks like the Valley fog – and our eyes are burning," Schwartz said.

Heading into Labor Day weekend, one of the busiest in the Tahoe basin, regional tourism officials say they aren't getting many calls so far from people wanting to bail out of prized hotel and cabin bookings. But a smoky sky, poor visibility and unhealthy air last weekend forced the cancellation of the annual Lake in the Sky Air Show that would have sent vintage aircraft soaring over Tahoe waters.

"We are at the mercy of the prevailing winds," said Carol Chapin, executive director of the Lake Tahoe Visitors Authority. "When we get westerly winds, it's been clearing up. … But it's tough right now. If you're coming to lie on the beach, this may not be a good day to do it. We cannot deny the visibility is limited. It smells smoky."

Chapin said the smoke isn't expected to affect Labor Day weekend events, including a Saturday race between the lake's legendary paddle wheel boats, the M.S. Dixie II and the Tahoe Queen, a Sunday "Sample the Sierra" food and wine festival and a Sunday night fireworks show.

While the Tahoe basin has been more affected by the smoke over the past several days, air monitors on Tuesday reported worse air quality in Pollock Pines on the western side of the Sierra.

The El Dorado County Air Quality Management District said a monitor in Pollock Pines recorded "very unhealthy" smoke levels with visibility of 1 to 1.25 miles compared with an "unhealthy" reading in the Tahoe basin and visibility up to 2.5 miles.

El Dorado County air pollution control officer Dave Johnson said elderly residents, children and anyone with respiratory problems or sensitive health issues should avoid strenuous activity in these conditions. Even "healthy people should delay strenuous activity until the air gets better," he said.

Pollock Pines resident Lisa Miguelgorry said she has settled into a routine since another blaze, the American fire near Foresthill, began sending smoke into Pollock Pines two weeks ago.

"Now I'm getting up at 3 a.m. and closing all the windows," she said. "At 3 p.m., when the air is better, I open them. It's becoming the new normal. It's crazy."

Officials in Placer County said air quality in Foresthill, after recent improvement, was listed in the "hazardous range" Tuesday – with three-quarters of a mile of visibility and residents urged to avoid outdoor activities. Unhealthy air was also reported in Auburn and Colfax.

"Auburn is definitely sitting in the smoke right now," said Ann Hobbs, an air control specialist at Placer County. "(The air quality index) has steadily risen as the smoke has started coming down the hill."

Fred Gramm traversed a meandering tunnel of smoky air after he left his house in Granite Bay in Placer County to drive to a family cabin he was selling in Sayles Canyon in El Dorado County.

"I've never seen the smoke this bad from this far, and I've been driving up here for 47 years," said Gramm, a retired fire captain from Foster City. "This is really horrible – horrible."

Yet at the Strawberry Lodge along Highway 50 in the mid-Sierra, chef Dan Rhoades was planning the Labor Day weekend barbecue of hot dogs, hamburgers and ribs even if the cuisine could have extra flavoring from smoke that has been drifting up ridges of the upper American River Canyon.

The smoke also did not stop Pat Reilly and Sarah Reilly of Granite Bay from celebrating their ninth wedding anniversary with a round of golf at Edgewood Tahoe Golf Course.

"It's not bothering me physically – not at all," Sarah Reilly said, "although it's hard to see my golf ball."

Joannie and Tim Schwartz, who arrived on their vacation Friday, said they have alternated between enduring the grayness and savoring lakeside clarity after shifts in the wind. And despite the distant fire, there was an unexpected bonus Monday evening.

"The sunset was gorgeous," Joannie Schwartz said. "It was blood orange – just so pretty."

Call The Bee's Peter Hecht, (916) 326-5539. Bee staff writer Kurt Chirbas contributed to this report.

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