A tale of two Tahoes
June 28, 2007
SOUTH LAKE TAHOE, Calif. – A measure of normalcy began to return to this resort community Thursday, even as crews battled an unpredictable mountain wildfire for a fifth day. Sunbathers ventured to some beaches, and the smoke lurking in the mountains largely cleared.
But it was a tale of two Tahoes. A few miles from the tourist belt, entire neighborhoods lay in ruin, eerily silent because residents remained officially barred from returning. Many urgently wanted to sift through the ash and grieve.
“Of course they want to see it. That’s what finalizes it – it’s like the funeral,” said Barbara Rebiskie, a U.S. Forest Service investigator who stood in an unincorporated community near Meyers, a few miles south of the lake.
A few people were so determined to return that they defied the evacuation orders and returned repeatedly on bicycles. They were arrested for trespassing, said El Dorado Sheriff’s Deputy Phil Chovanec.
The amount of land burned held steady at 3,100 acres as of Thursday night, with the fire’s containment officially at 70 percent. A total of 254 homes had been destroyed, and 3,500 people had been evacuated since the fire broke out on Sunday, said Rich Hawkins, a Forest Service fire incident commander.
Among many firefighters, there was a sense of rising confidence that they were gaining the upper hand against a blaze that has hop-scotched and erupted erratically. “Demobilization” was the term of the afternoon, and about 500 firefighters were expected to leave Friday.
Recommended Stories For You
“Basically, I think the whole fire is in the mop-up stage,” said Dave Ingrum, chief of a strike team based in San Joaquin County. “I think it’s pretty obvious from the lack of smoke.”
He hastened to add that he was not in communication with crews elsewhere and did not have a sense of the larger picture. Still, his comments were echoed by fire officials elsewhere.
And as he spoke early Thursday afternoon, a radio call from a comrade in another location reported winds of 4-6 mph – drastically lower than the forecast gusts of up to 40 mph.
At a briefing for hundreds of firefighters, Jim Wallman, the command center meteorologist, pointed out a weak ridge of high pressure on a satellite map represented by a dark streak.
“We’re calling it the swath of luck,” he said, explaining that it had kept winds low. And the wind that did blow had delivered higher humidity, a welcome condition, he added.
Rebiskie said it was too early to declare victory, and Wallman emphasized that winds could again pick up late Thursday evening.
Near Meyers, in what was once a neighborhood of handsome mountain cabins amid fir trees, cars slumped on their rims, tires vaporized. Aluminum superheated by the inferno had trickled into the streets and then solidified, leaving shiny rivulets on pavement. Driveways led to empty spaces where houses once stood.
Only public safety officials, utility workers and journalists were permitted into the neighborhood because authorities feared unstable trees and power lines could injure residents. Utility crews worked through the night and all Thursday to restore electricity and other services.
“We haven’t been able to have closure,” said Che DeVol, whose home was totally destroyed by the fire. He and his father visited a victim-assistance center set up by various agencies at Tahoe Community College but he had yet to return to a family home of 22 years.
“To stand there and at least rake through our stuff, that’s the hardest part,” he said. “They won’t let us out there.”
With hindsight and a glance at a map, it all seemed inevitable. The neighborhood here is a finger of development jutting audaciously into vast state and federal forest tracts.
“A lot of these people knew the potential, but said ‘It’s not going to happen,”‘ said Ingrum, who was part of the strike team sent to guard against flare-ups in Meyers, where the fire swept through on Sunday. “Guess what? Everybody’s awake now.”
“I just hope we won’t be back here later this summer,” said Dwight Lindsey, another member of the strike team.
Hawkins said authorities had pinpointed the cause of the blaze, but would not announce it until Friday. He said he believed it was accidental.
As the weekend approached, and beyond it a holiday week, there were signs of tourism rebounding. Power boats prowled the turquoise waters of Lake Tahoe, and a parasailer floated carefree above. A few sunbathers were out at midday, but a fleet of personal watercraft bobbed in the shallows unused.
• Associated Press Writers Aaron C. Davis and Joe Mullin contributed to this report.
By the numbers
70 percent contained
3,100 acres burned
229 homes destroyed
13 others severely damaged
3,500 people evacuated
$141 million in structure damage
$5.5 million cost to suppress
could cost between $15 and $30 million
Containment expected by Tuesday
750 homes remain threatened
2,174 fire personnel
2 injuries reported