Loss of business

A normally packed Highway 50 was deserted as the Caldor fire roared toward South Lake Tahoe this month.

SOUTH LAKE TAHOE, Calif. — When the Caldor fire ignited, Clearly Tahoe was getting ready to take its water sports business to the next level.

The company had just bought a brand-new, 46-foot tritoon boat — a massive triple-hull pontoon vessel that could launch 20 clear kayaks way out in Lake Tahoe’s deep, blue waters to show tourists some of the area’s most beautiful secluded coves.

Before the vessel could take its maiden voyage, South Lake Tahoe was evacuated as flames threatened to overrun the city.

“All of a sudden our excitement turned into just fear that we were going to lose the boat in the fire and all of our equipment,” said Kelsey Weist, a Clearly Tahoe partner.

The fire spared the city, including Clearly Tahoe’s new boat, and thousands of South Lake Tahoe residents were allowed to return home Sunday as firefighters made progress beating back the more than 216,000-acre blaze. But Clearly Tahoe and the rest of the lake’s boat rental companies, restaurants and hotels lost something that they’ll never get back — a huge chunk of their peak-season revenue.

Many of the businesses popular with visitors from the Bay Area and around the world rely on the summer to make enough revenue to last the entire year. But with weeks of smoky air and then the nearly week-long mandatory evacuation warding off customers, many establishments are hurting.

The Lake Tahoe Visitors Authority projects the fire will cost the South Lake Tahoe hotel industry $21 million over the last two weeks of August and into the first two weeks of September. Losses in the retail and restaurant industry are estimated at $19.4 million, and losses to city coffers are an estimated $4.7 million.

Visitors are still being asked to stay away, due to smoky air and the ongoing fire threat with portions of the Tahoe Basin remaining under a mandatory evacuation order. It’s another in a string of recent blows to businesses still reeling from the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic, and the off and on shutdowns that have disrupted revenue for the past year and a half.

“This is not our first natural disaster and it probably won’t be our last, but it definitely came at the worst possible time,” Weist said.

Lyndsay Bryant of Lake Tahoe Boat Rides, which offers chartered boats for water sports, sightseeing and small events, estimates her business has lost between 35 percent and 40 percent of its revenue for the year.

The company only operates from May to October. July and August typically are its busiest months — and this September was shaping up to be their best ever.

“We were pretty solidly booked,” Bryant said. “And now we’ve obviously canceled and refunded everything, just about.”

Nicole Smith, who co-owns South Lake Brewing Co. with her husband, was counting her blessings Monday as she welcomed employees back and prepared to re-open Tuesday. Sure, they lost sales. But the brewery is still standing.

“It was kind of a bummer because we missed Labor Day weekend, but whatever. It’s not the end of the world,” she said. “We can make up the revenue later, and business insurance is there for that exact reason.”

As the brewery works to recover its business, it’s reverting to something that helped it stay afloat during the pandemic — online sales. Evacuated local customers who haven’t yet returned home — as well as people from around the state — can order cans of beer and have them shipped via UPS.

The fire also is hurting service workers who haven’t been collecting pay during the evacuation, and who have seen their tips suffer for smoke-filled weeks. Smith helped set up a relief fund for local food and beverage workers through the nonprofit Tahoe Prosperity Center. The fund is accepting donations online at tahoeprosperity.org/caldor-fire-relief-fund.

The fire cost Dan Kramer, who drives a boat for Lake Tahoe Boat Rides, about a month and a half’s wages between the evacuation and cancellations due to smoke. Though he has a winter job as a bartender at Sierra-at-Tahoe ski resort, and a spring job teaching wilderness education at Lake Tahoe Community College, his summer job is his bread and butter.

But Kramer, 48, has much to celebrate. His house in Christmas Valley very nearly burned down but was saved by firefighters. Now, he’s trying to make the most of his unexpected time off by visiting friends.

“I’ve been trying to keep my head up about all of this stuff,” he said, “and try to take it step by step.”

Summer is usually the busiest season for the Hard Rock Hotel & Casino, which had been planning to celebrate the close of the season with a Labor Day bash. The fire drove the casino’s business away, but instead of shutting down, the hotel opened its doors to people in need, said Eric Barbaro, executive director of marketing. It put up about 180 employees and local residents who had nowhere to evacuate to. Most of the rest of its 539 rooms went to firefighters and other first responders, who pay a nominal fee to cover the cost of cleaning the rooms.

Twice a day, the guests eat meals together and listen to Cal Fire briefings. Staff turned a hotel lounge into a family room and showed movies.

It likely will take some time for things to get back to normal. Tahoe Tastings, which offers wine tasting cruises on the lake, won’t re-open until Saturday at the earliest, said owner Diondra Colquhoun. And even after the smoke clears, the Caldor Fire may have left a lasting scar in the minds of tourists.

“The thing I keep hearing from customers is they don’t feel safe being in the basin and don’t even want to reschedule to another time because they don’t feel safe,” she said. “So that’s a little disheartening, for sure.”

And the Caldor Fire — one of 14 active wildfires that have burned more than 2 million acres across California — remains a threat, even as Cal Fire reduced mandatory evacuations in the Grizzly Flats area. The blaze was 44% contained Monday, and a total of 27,670 buildings remained at risk.

Lindsey Baker, a spokeswoman for the city of South Lake Tahoe, is confident the community will recover.

“Just like with COVID, they will bounce back,” she said. “We are incredibly resilient.”