Firefighters gain ground on Angora Fire
June 25, 2007
The smell was sickening. The sight was worse.
Artifacts of everyday life and ash were all that were left at the houses unlucky enough to be in the path of the Angora fire.
“Oh, my God, the complete devastation,” said East Fork Fire District Chief Tod Carlini, who has been a firefighter for more than 30 years. “The news reports about the loss of structures don’t even come close to seeing actually what’s been destroyed. It’s the most devastating fire situation I have ever seen. It’s just incredible.”
Around 200 structures have been destroyed with preliminary damage estimates at $100 million.
Carlini said he saw evidence of heroic efforts to save homes.
“Some were successful, but there was no rhyme or reason which ones survived. Those with defensible space have a better chance, but conditions were such that it was good fortune and luck,” he said.
El Dorado Superior Court Judge Suzanne Kingsbury was one of the lucky ones.
“I’ve tried to puzzle through that,” she said. We just got the house painted. I wonder if that had something to do with it.”
She returned with her husband to her Mount Olympia home Monday to take items out of the refrigerator. Her home was one of two left standing out of a couple dozen on the street.
Houses along Lake Tahoe Boulevard, Boulder Mountain, Coyote Ridge, Mule Deer, Pyramid Circle, Mt. Diablo Circle, Mount Olympia Circle and a handful of others were fuel for the fire, which started off Seneca Drive on U.S. Forest Service land.
Authorities have said the fire was human-caused, although its exact cause remains under investigation.
As of 6:30 p.m. Monday, the Angora fire had burned 2,500 acres and destroyed 180 to 225 structures, including homes. Containment was at 40 percent, according to CalFire.
Hundreds of firefighters battled the blaze, with acts of bravery already being told, such as an El Dorado County sheriff’s deputy using an idle Bobcat to dig a fire line to save a few houses along Mewuk Drive.
Then, there are the selfless acts – such as Lake Valley Fire Protection District firefighter Joe McAvoy. His Elk Point Drive home was destroyed yet he spent hours on the line working to save others.
McAvoy was grateful his wife, Lisa, son, Tanner, and dog, Nash, escaped.
“It was tough, though. I’ve just tried to put it out of my mind. At this point, I’ve been at work and called the insurance company. That’s as far as we can go,” he said.
Monday morning a few minutes after 7 a.m., El Dorado County Supervisor Norma Santiago was escorted into the area by sheriff’s Sgt. Bruce Rosa. She said she received 10 to 15 minutes of sleep at her ex-husband’s house. Her own home on Gardner Street was in the evacuation zone.
“It stands to be a very long three to four days,” she said.
As Rosa guided his cruiser onto Sawmill Road, a street guarded, like other arteries into the blackened area, by law enforcement, the hazy smoke made the sun a fiery orange.
On Glenmore Way off Tahoe Mountain Road, several evacuated houses were doused with red fire retardant, including a formerly white Sunbeam car. Down the road children’s toys remained in the driveway.
Sunday’s gusty winds that seemed to push in every direction coupled with dry fuel from a lackluster winter created the perfect fire storm.
“Everything at the same time to make a nightmare,” Rosa said. “It just jumped everywhere.”
Santiago’s voice broke several times as she recognized houses of friends – some saved and some obliterated.
“I was trying to keep it together,” she said, wiping away tears.
Chimneys remained standing, as well as a stone entryway leading into open space. Mailboxes and bearproof trash containers survived. Cars were skeletons. Bikes were burnt. Downed power lines criss-crossed roads along the asphalt, littering the area. Some power poles were broken, making crude crucifixes. A windshield for an Isuzu Trooper at the end of Brush Road was melted as if plastic
At Pyramid Court, where some of the first evacuations took place, six homes were destroyed. Rosa believed a dog perished in the area.
“A lot of people could be making some interesting choices,” Rosa said. He inferred people might grab their insurance money and leave Tahoe, forgoing the headache of rebuilding in an area known for its bureaucracy.
Tony Sears, who lives on a side street off Lake Tahoe Boulevard, appeared bewildered his house remained standing next to flattened houses and scorched earth.
He learned his house survived late Sunday night.
“It was a lot of relief. It took me to my knees,” he said.
Dave Ennis stayed at his house along View Circle on Sunday night. On Monday morning, he was eating Honey Nut Cheerios. The fire was nerve-rackingly close to his house around 5 p.m. Sunday, so he packed an antique guitar and family memorabilia. He said to himself he would stand in a nearby meadow and watch his home burn if one of the several small embers showering the area ignited the structure.
“A lot of people really got nailed,” he said.
Bob Swift waited in limbo at the corner of Lake Tahoe Boulevard and Industrial Avenue, wondering if his house along Mount Rainier and his 1970 Monte Carlo escaped the inferno.
“I hated to leave it, but we had to get out,” he said. After staying at Motel 6 on Sunday night, he had $13 in his pocket. He left his wallet on his home’s kitchen counter when he left in a hurry.
Authorities guarding the intersection wouldn’t let him pass. Some of the brave – or foolish – used back roads via mountain bikes to check the status of friend’s houses. They were turned away when caught by roving authorities ensuring the area was filled with the proper officials, and not potential looters or those who could get injured.
Kevin Cooper, who lives on Clear View Drive, insisted on checking on his home Monday. He used his bicycle so he wouldn’t attract attention to himself. He was glad to see his house standing. But the front yard was scorched.
“It’s amazing. When I left, all I could see (were) trees on fire,” he said. “The house was built in 1969. It should have burned,” he said, glancing at the downed power lines on Lake Tahoe Boulevard. “What do you do when you have to pack a house in 15 minutes?”
Dan Wilvers, a pastor at Sierra Community Church, was another observer who entered the area on a bike. He was told by Douglas County sheriff’s deputies to leave the area. He anticipated friends, acquaintances and strangers taking people in, providing relief and offering donations.
“I think churches will be a little bit busier this week,” he said.
• The Record-Courier reporter Sheila Gardner contributed to this report.