Responders offer mutual aid in South Lake Tahoe
A team of deputies from the Santa Barbara County Sheriff’s Office are currently on the ground in South Lake Tahoe to aid local law enforcement bodies as the Caldor Fire continues to burn through the region.
The team, composed of 21 deputies from the Sheriff’s Office, deployed last Wednesday to provide mutual aid in El Dorado County, where thousands of residents have been evacuated due to the fire. As of Saturday, the Caldor fire had burned more than 214,000 acres in both El Dorado and Amador counties and was only 37% contained.
The Sheriff’s Office deputies are joined by four officers from the Santa Barbara Police Department and two officers from the Lompoc Police Department. These responders from Santa Barbara County are part of a contingent of more than 100 law enforcement personnel from Ventura, Santa Barbara and San Luis Obispo counties that are responding through a mutual aid agreement between all California law enforcement agencies, according to a news release.
Since deploying, the team of deputies has been patrolling the South Lake Tahoe region to watch for looters and check on the few residents in the area who chose not to evacuate. According to Lt. Steven Johnson from the Sheriff’s Office, the majority of South Lake Tahoe’s 22,000 residents have evacuated, though some stayed behind in an effort to protect their homes and businesses.
During patrols, Lt. Johnson said deputies make regular contact with residents out walking, biking or driving, checking in on them to make sure they have what they need to stay safe. He said many of the residents have been cooperative and appreciative of law enforcement presence.
The team also looks out for looters during patrols, responding to reports of stolen property. As of Saturday, deputies had made four arrests — two on Thursday and two on Friday — for illegal entries into homes and looting, according to Lt. Johnson.
A few residents who evacuated the area have aided the deputies in catching looters by utilizing security systems and video cameras outside their homes. The lieutenant said one resident called law enforcement when they saw someone stealing a bike through their Ring Doorbell system, and deputies were able to confront the looter and arrest them within minutes.
“It’s a good thing for us to be up here,” Lt. Johnson told the News-Press on Saturday. “We’re doing a lot of work and a lot of preventative work by keeping people out who aren’t supposed to be here and basically representing the people who are still here.”
“People are very appreciative of our presence, and they’re making that well known to us,” he added. “It’s a matter of everybody working together to get back, hopefully, to the point that they’ll be able to lift the evacuations and get everybody back in.”
Since the team arrived in the city last week, conditions have been very smoky and foggy, and crews can smell the fire burning just a few miles away, Lt. Johnson said. When the crew traveled on U.S. Route 50 to get to South Lake Tahoe last week, fire was burning on both sides of the road, and Lt. Johnson said Caltrans is working hard to ensure the road remains open and clear for first responders.
As the fire advances, Lt. Johnson said it’s pushing wildlife, like black bears, into the mostly evacuated city limits of South Lake Tahoe. During patrols, deputies have seen multiple bears roaming around and searching for food by knocking down trash cans and breaking into evacuated homes.
“One of our female deputies who is on our media team videotaped a bear jumping up onto a fence and then going through a window into a house,” Lt. Johnson said. “We get alarm calls for residences here or neighbors calling and saying ‘hey a bear just went into the house.”
With the fire still advancing over the weekend, Lt. Johnson said the group of deputies currently on the ground in El Dorado County will likely be replaced by another team at the start of this week. He said how long the crew stays depends on weather and the state of the fire, noting that conditions can change hour by hour based on wind speed.
As first responders continue to combat the fire and protect impacted communities, Lt. Johnson said the crew of deputies helps to relieve some of the strain on local enforcement bodies by offering extra support and officers. He added that after all the help Central Coast agencies received during the Thomas Fire and Montecito Debris Flow disasters, responding to the Caldor fire feels like a way to give back.
“We’ve gotten a lot of mutual aid assistance in the past from agencies all over Central California, all the way down to LA, Orange County, especially during the Thomas Fire and Montecito Debris Flow,” he said. “We obviously couldn’t take care of everything by ourselves, and we had agencies from all over the area to help us in that situation. And this is our way to kind of give back to this community, to give the law enforcement officers in this area a break so they can have a day off — basically, that’s what the other agencies did for us.”