The bears of the South Lake Tahoe area had a ball last week tearing through evacuated neighborhoods, breaking into homes and garages where they smelled food, and generally making a huge, stinking mess.

As the Caldor Fire beared down on South Lake Tahoe, some bears came out of the deeper woods where things were burning, and joined the bears who usually roam the area in getting into whatever they could get into, while the humans were away. (And, FYI, these are all black bears, not quite as big but just as hungry as grizzlies — even though there's a grizzly bear on the state flag, there are no grizzlies left in California.)

"They’ve had free run of the town, and they’ve been taking advantage of it," said John Tillman, owner of South Tahoe Refuse, speaking to the Chronicle.

"There’s so much garbage on the street because of the bears. Oh my God, they are making a mess," Tillman said.

Reportedly, many South Lake Tahoe residents — who often but not always have locked bear boxes in their front driveways to stow trash for pickup — took out their trash as they were evacuating last Monday, even though there was no scheduled trash pickup for several days. On top of that, Tillman explained, most of the 130 employees at South Tahoe Refuse are local and were evacuated themselves, which meant no trash was going to get picked up at all.

With no people to shoo them away, bears took their time sniffing out good eats — and bears can, apparently, smell fresh or rotting food from a mile away. Garage doors were broken through, bear boxes were pried open, and trash cans with locking lids were likewise popped open for the bears to feast.

Also, some homes were broken into by bears, as CBS News reports, prompting the sheriff to issue a broad warning to all returning South Lake Tahoe residents on Sunday that they should be on the lookout for bears, and to call law enforcement if they think a bear might have gotten inside their home. The bears, the sheriff's office said, had all but taken over.

"The delicate balance between humans and bears has been upset," said El Dorado County sheriff's Sgt. Simon Brown, speaking to CBS News.

Around 70 reports of bear break-ins at homes and vehicles came in last week, up from a usual average of just a few per week, as the Chronicle reports.

Trash collectors were just getting started on the cleanup work on Monday, and South Tahoe Refuse announced there would be a no-charge food waste drop-off on Wednesday, September 8, at 2121 Eloise Avenue.

"If at all possible, please keep any food waste out of the garbage," the company said on its website. "It helps on so many levels, including animal mitigation."

Due to the continued need for cleanup, the company is also hosting several temporary garbage drop-off sites this week at Elks Point Fire Station and Bijou Park.

The Caldor Fire reached 49% containment Tuesday morning, and evacuation orders in South Lake Tahoe and neighboring areas close to the lake were downgraded to warnings as of Sunday afternoon. Evacuation orders remain in place for the communities of Meyers, Christmas Valley, and Fallen Leaf Lake.

Related: Evacuations Lifted In South Lake Tahoe As Winds Calm Down

Photo: Ben Owen