Tales of bravery: 10 years after the Angora fire

Dan Thrift/Tahoe Daily Tribune California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger finds a dumbell in the remains of an Angora Fire home on View Circle while taking a tour of the area Wednesday afternoon.

Dan Thrift/Tahoe Daily Tribune California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger finds a dumbell in the remains of an Angora Fire home on View Circle while taking a tour of the area Wednesday afternoon.

Editor’s note: This retelling of events was adapted from “Angora: South Lake Tahoe,” a book published by and filled with the work of Tahoe Daily Tribune and Sierra Nevada Media Group staff members. Additional details come from Tahoe Daily Tribune newspaper archives. This wouldn’t be possible were it not for the tireless work of previous reporters, photographers and editors.

By many accounts, Sunday, June 24, 2007, started out like a regular summer Sunday. By the end, the day would be one etched in the collective memory of Lake Tahoe.

Flames erupted on the Angora Ridge southwest of the lake. The fire spread quickly, forcing hundreds from their homes. Evacuation centers sprang up and became temporary homes to 110 people by Sunday night.

The community patched together emergency responses for those displaced — the city of South Lake Tahoe opened the centers, Girl Scouts stepped forward to distribute food and other items donated by businesses and agencies.

Those efforts, comforting as they may have been, couldn’t completely allay the feeling that weighed on those evacuated: uncertainty.

“We were asked to evacuate around 4 o’clock by a sheriff driving through our neighborhood,” said Gladys Ross, who owned a home on Angora Creek Road. “It looked like the fire reached the end of our street when we were leaving.

“Our kids and grandkids also live in that area, and we haven’t heard from them either. We’re scared about the whole thing.”

Tales of bravery

The next day, June 25, with 225 structures destroyed in the 2,500-acre fire and as many as 500 more in danger, state officials declared a state of emergency. Around 700 firefighters worked to contain the blaze, which had already separated itself from past fires in terms of sheer devastation.

Monday evening, the fire was at 40 percent containment.

As firefighting efforts continued, tales of bravery began emerging. There was Joe McAvoy, a Lake Valley Fire Protection District firefighter who stayed on the line trying to save homes even after his own home was destroyed. He was grateful his family escaped.

“It was tough, tough. 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,” McAvoy said.

By that point the devastation was difficult to accurately depict with just words.

“Oh my God, the complete devastation,” said East Fork Fire District Chief Tod Carlini. “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.”

‘Strange silence’

On Tuesday afternoon, the fire grew to 3,000 acres, forcing the evacuation of Tahoe Island and Tahoe Keys. Elsewhere off North Upper Truckee, some of the earliest evacuees started returning home.

“The street, except for the smoke, looks the same, but it won’t be the same,” said Sherry Chandler, who returned with her husband Mike to their still-standing home on Kickapoo Street.

With winds expected to pick up, the couple was unsure whether they should completely unpack their vehicle.

“There is this strange silence. You know, things aren’t normal but what’s going to be normal?” Sherry asked. “I’m dreading the drive down Lake Tahoe Boulevard.”

Investigators on Tuesday had narrowed the fire’s origins to an area about 100 feet from Seneca Pond, a half-mile from Seneca Drive. Although officials were certain the Angora Fire was ignited by human actions, the exact cause remained under investigation. And as that investigation continued, containment remained at 40 percent in an area that was known to pose severe fire hazards well before the flames of Angora raged.

Better than the day before

Wednesday, June 27, brought some cautious optimism. Strong winds predicted the previous day ended up being weaker than expected.

“I’m feeling a lot better today than I was yesterday,” said Ranger Dorn, operation planner for the unified command.

At that point, 254 homes had been destroyed; an additional 13 homes were described as “severely damaged.” More than 3,000 people had been evacuated.

An estimate from the El Dorado County Sheriff’s Office pinned the structural damage at $141 million — a number that didn’t include damage to infrastructure, including power lines. The cost of fighting the blaze stood at $5.5 million and was expected to cost between $15 and $30 million by the time it was over.

That afternoon California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger toured an area ravaged by the fire. At a press conference afterward, he heaved praise at the firefighters battling the blaze.

“This of course was one of the worst fires in Lake Tahoe’s history,” the governor said. “We simply have the bravest and most skilled firefighters.”

At the same press conference, Tahoe Regional Planning Agency Executive Director John Singlaub addressed brewing questions concerning any possible role the agency’s rules played in the blaze.

“We have been working on fuels treatment and defensible space for decades. Many of the neighbors in this neighborhood had already gotten their trees cut. I know emotions are running high right now. People are angry. They want somebody to blame and we’re the usual target.”

Some evacuees were told they could return home Wednesday night. Many others were left wondering when they might be able to return to their property and what they would find when they did return.

As of Wednesday evening, 3,100 acres had burned. Containment was at 55 percent. Full containment was expected by July 3.

Cause determined

On Thursday, June 28, officials announced the fire was 70 percent contained. By Friday, June 29, containment improved to 85 percent. The peak firefighting force of approximately 2,220 had reduced to around 600 on Friday.

That morning some residents were allowed to return to their property to sift through the damage for about an hour. White shoe polish was used to mark people’s cars with their address and the time they were supposed to leave.

“You get to a point where it doesn’t feel like your home. It’s so foreign,” said Karen Martin, who struggled to rummage through the devastation left where her home once stood on Boulder Mountain Drive. She and her husband, Brooks, were married at the home.

“I know I want to get through the kitchen stuff but I don’t have it in me,” she said.

That same day federal officials announced an illegal campfire caused the Angora Fire, adding it was “not deliberately set.” The announcement squashed some rumors that had been circulating, including a cigarette was the cause of the blaze. (Five years earlier, a flicked cigarette sparked the Gondola Fire that burned 672 acres on the slope overlooking Stateline). The campfire that ignited Angora likely started Saturday night.

Despite the positive news regarding the containment efforts, incident commander Rich Hawkins warned that fire danger remained high, adding that conditions are “the driest we’ve had in three generations.”

Full containment

Efforts continued and by Sunday, July 1, the fire was 95 percent contained. Most of the remaining firefighters from outside jurisdictions started packing up to deploy elsewhere and return home. The next day firefighters reached 100 percent containment on the Angora Fire, and Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger returned to declare Tahoe was indeed open for the approaching Fourth of July holiday. As people poured into the basin that day, dozens of firefighters remained at the Angora site snuffing out lingering hot spots. A fire official warned it could take weeks to extinguish the embers.

It would be much more than weeks for those looking to rebuild after losing everything. There would be private meetings with insurance agents and others; public meetings to discuss land management and other policies; and debates about how to proceed in the wake of Angora. Through all of that and beyond remains the realization such destruction is possible even in a place as idyllic as Tahoe.


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