A beach in California Photo: VCG

Thousands of people were ordered to evacuate on Monday as a massive forest fire hovered over a major US tourist site, filling the air with choking smoke.

The Caldor fire has already devastated more than 270 square miles (700 square kilometers), razing hundreds of buildings.

On Monday, it roared towards South Lake Tahoe, the main resort in the popular vacation area that straddles the California-Nevada border.

“The conditions for fighting the fire, the fuels, are historic,” Cal Fire incident commander Jeff Veik said, according to the San Francisco Chronicle. “We’re going to put out this fire. (But) it won’t be today.”

The western United States is burning at an alarming rate, with more than 2,700 square miles blackened in late August in California alone – more than double the area consumed at that time in an average year.

The fires are sparked by a historic drought that has left entire swathes of the region parched, as human-made climate change takes visible – and painful – devastation and people living in the region are forced to flee.

“I got hit at 10pm last night with a warning to be ready,” South Lake Tahoe resident Corinne Kobel told the Sacramento Bee newspaper.

“At 10 o’clock this morning, the sheriffs kicked us out. I’m freaking out.”

Kobel was among 22,000 people ordered to leave their homes Monday morning, joining tens of thousands of others trying to escape the on-going blaze.

A street view in San Francisco, California Photo: VCG

A street view in San Francisco, California Photo: VCG

Traffic jam

An AFP journalist witnessed the flow of traffic leaving the city, with cars and motorhomes obstructing the main roads.

Among those stuck on the road was Mel Smothers, 74, who spent time in traffic jams playing the violin.

Smothers, who has lived in Tahoe since the 1970s, said it was the first time wildfires chased him away. But it wouldn’t be the last.

“It’s paradise, but you know with the recent fires, Lake Tahoe has changed,” he told AFP.

“That’s how it’s going to be from now on. Every year now we have these fires.

“August is beautiful but it’s probably going to be smoky from now on.”

On Sunday, as the blaze devastated the Twin Bridges area, there were incongruous scenes as the flames raged around the ski lifts.

Snow cannons – typically used to help keep trails covered in winter – were fired to try and keep the area wet.

Cal Fire director Thom Porter said the blaze increased by more than 30 square miles overnight after the air above it cleared.

“When the air clears it takes the lid off your pot of boiling water; all of a sudden there’s this plume of heat and steam coming out,” he said, according to the Sacramento Bee.

“The same thing happens with a fire. Also sucks in oxygen from all directions, sets fire to and spots fires in all directions.”

Above: Golden Gate Bridge in California Photo: VCG

Above: Golden Gate Bridge in California Photo: VCG

Winter sports venue

The Caldor Fire began on August 14 and quickly spread through the Eldorado National Forest.

Smoke from the blaze has threatened tourist sites around Lake Tahoe for the past week, filling the air with a choking haze.

Alpine Lake is known for its clear waters and the areas around it offer spectacular scenery, including some of the most popular ski resorts in the western United States.

The blaze is one of many fires in the region that are straining the resources of local firefighters.

Further north, the massive Dixie Fire ravaged more than 1,100 square miles in the six weeks following its eruption.

Thousands of firefighters and other emergency personnel are involved in fighting the fires, which are fanned by gusts of wind and fed by dry fuel.

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