Caldor Fire evacuations hit Nevada. But border casinos are still hosting Tahoe evacuees

STATELINE, Nev. — It only takes a few steps across the California line to reach the first craps tables and slot machines in this border town. But since evacuations were ordered Monday in South Lake Tahoe, that short walk has also meant crossing another divide — from an evacuation zone to a strip of resorts where the rooms are going for up to $500 a- night and some fire refugees are still trying their luck on the slots.

As mandatory evacuations for the Caldor Fire expanded into Nevada late Tuesday afternoon, evacuees, emergency personnel and casino workers who have holed up at the four big resorts — the Hard Rock, Harveys, Harrah’s and Montbleu — found themselves in uncertain terrain. The “casino core” was exempted from the order, leaving many worried what might happen if they stay put.

The Caldor Fire roared through drought-dried timber as it headed toward South Lake Tahoe Monday, forcing the city's 22,000 residents to evacuate. Video: San Francisco Chronicle

“If we stay here, we’ll be on a little island,” said a South Lake Tahoe resident named Dan who was walking his dog in the Montbleu parking lot.

While locals will tell you the California-Nevada boundary on the lake’s southern shore is a porous, “blink-and-you’ll-miss-it border,” some said the fire has also highlighted long-standing differences in how the two states handle development, risk and daily life. Now, with tens of thousands of people evacuated — many with family and job ties to this stretch of casinos — all eyes are on how officials handle the challenge of managing a climate disaster across state lines.

The 17-day-old, 191,600-acre blaze is still growing in windy conditions, and some Nevada residents said it was hard to get updated local information with so much emphasis on South Lake Tahoe. Already on Tuesday afternoon, a site for evacuated Californians in Gardnerville, Nev., was being relocated farther out of the fire zone to Reno.

Caldor Fire evacuations hit Nevada. But border casinos are still hosting Tahoe evacuees

Kathy Heaton, in Stateline, Nev., after being evacuated from her South Lake Tahoe cabin, has her daughter-in-law say hello.

Jungho Kim/Special to The Chronicle

Still, in a press conference on Tuesday morning, Nevada officials sought to reassure residents that contingency plans are in place.

“I’ve spoken to Gov. Newsom several times,” Nevada Gov. Steve Sisolak said. “It wasn’t, ‘What gives?’ It was ‘OK, we’ve got a problem on our hands, and we’re going to deal with it.’”

Inside the Montbleu, agents behind a marble front desk lined with surgical masks and hand sanitizer said rooms were going for $500 after tax. Some locals who come often to gamble cashed in free nights at the hotels up the strip lined with a shuttered vape shop and haunts like the Lucky Beaver Bar & Burger.

After evacuating from South Lake Tahoe on Monday, Linda Johnson smoked a cigarette outside the Montbleu while her daughter and grandson got settled in a room she’d gotten comped. It was stressful, Johnson said, but the setting at least felt familiar after years of working in the nearby casinos.

“There’s a saying,” said Johnson, 74. “You can sneeze, and over at Stateline they’ll say bless you.”

Nevada emergency officials said preparations began “over 10 days ago” in coordination with Cal Fire personnel. After officials on the California side of the border successfully evacuated South Lake Tahoe on Monday morning, resulting in hours of traffic gridlock but no reported injuries, officials hope to “use that plan to move forward as we look into potential actions on the Nevada side,” said Jon Bakkedahl, a manager at the Nevada Division of Emergency.

Caldor Fire evacuations hit Nevada. But border casinos are still hosting Tahoe evacuees

A woman plays the slot machines inside Montbleu Resort in Stateline, Nev.

Jungho Kim/Special to The Chronicle

But where exactly that left the casinos remained unclear late Tuesday in Stateline, where evacuees roamed the sidewalks looking for open restaurants and glanced over fire maps posted on the sidewalk.

At the Hard Rock Hotel and Casino, Kathy Heaton retreated to the slots and sipped a greyhound Tuesday while she waited to see if she’d be evacuated for a second time in two days.

The Hard Rock was the first place she and her husband thought to call yesterday when they got evacuation orders at their home a mile away in South Lake Tahoe. They’re regulars at the casino, where Heaton said the concierge offered them three nights free while they debate whether to stay in Lake Tahoe or evacuate to their family home near Los Angeles.

“It’s 450 miles away,” Heaton said, “but that’s better than going to a shelter.”

With roads coming into the South Lake Tahoe area closed, most people staying at the Montbleu were firefighters and evacuees, a spokesperson for ownership group Bally’s said. Down the street, Harrah’s and Harveys Lake Tahoe were being used as a fire command center, officials said at a press conference on Monday. The hotels are not under evacuation orders, a spokesperson said, but “we recognize that the situation is rapidly evolving.”

Caldor Fire evacuations hit Nevada. But border casinos are still hosting Tahoe evacuees

An old “Keep Tahoe Blue” bumper sticker is seen on a vehicle in Stateline, Nev., alongside a reflection of the golden-hued sun, colored by smoke from the Caldor Fire.

Jungho Kim/Special to The Chronicle

After a state of emergency was declared in Nevada in response to the fire, casinos were operating at reduced capacity, and some employees had evacuated their families to hotel rooms, personnel said.

On the sidewalk between the towering casinos, a homeless woman named Nancy Mauk cried as she tried to catch her breath and find a way out of town.

“I just need help,” said Mauk, an out-of-work waitress from Virginia who had been staying in Reno. “I saw dogs in there laying down.”

Lauren Hepler is a San Francisco Chronicle staff writer. Email: [email protected] Twitter: @LAHepler