Fire near gondola quickly doused |

Fire near gondola quickly doused

Gregory Crofton

A wildfire ignited Saturday afternoon 200 yards east of the gondola, forcing Heavenly Mountain Resort to shut it down and evacuate its cars.

Two years ago in July, a fire driven by strong winds burned in the same area, consuming 673 acres and forcing residents on Kingsbury Grade to evacuate.

This fire – the cause of which is under investigation by the U.S. Forest Service – didn’t find much fuel because was in a steep, rocky area already burned by the Gondola fire.

But it also helped that winds were calm, which allowed repeated water drops from a Forest Service helicopter and five retardant releases from two Forest Service air tankers to douse the flames.

The emergency dispatch center in South Lake Tahoe received a flood of 911 calls reporting smoke and 20-foot flames at 1:40 p.m. By 2:15 p.m., the helicopter had dipped its bucket in the lake and made its first drop on the fire.

Air tankers released retardant about 15 minutes later. By 3 p.m., a Forest Service hand crew had contained the fire at about a quarter of an acre, said Rex Norman, Forest Service public information officer.

South Lake Tahoe firefighters were the first to respond to the incident, which they did by hiking about a third of a mile up the mountainside from the top of Saddle Road.

“It was about 75 feet by 200 feet,” said South Lake Tahoe fire Battalion Chief Russ Dow. “It was a creeping fire in pine needles inside the old burn.”

“It was a smaller incident yet it was in an area so close to the Gondola fire,” Dow added. “And it’s a huge concern when it comes to any incident on that side of the hill.”

Lake Valley Fire Protection District firefighters arrived on the scene to assist, but since the fire was on national forest land, the Forest Service did most of the work.

“The Forest Service did a heck of a job,” said Lake Valley fire Capt. Joe McAvoy, who helped lay 1,200 feet of hose to get water to the fire. “They were organized, had good resources and a good air attack real quickly. We were kind of the mules for their effort.”

South Lake Tahoe Mayor Tom Davis, who worked on a fire attack helicopter back in the 1960s, parked his motorcycle at the entrance of the Safeway parking lot to watch the pilots of the planes and helicopters do their jobs.

“Thank God we’ve got a lake there,” Davis said. “This shows how effective helicopters can be on initial attack. Once it gets going it gets harder and harder to put out.”

Davis pointed out that a big fire could happen anytime at South Shore and that residents should pick and choose valuables now so they will be ready to evacuate. He also advised homeowners to check their insurance policies to make sure they provide adequate coverage to rebuild.

The Gondola fire started on July 3, 2002. It took three days and more than $3 million to extinguish. It was sparked by a discarded cigarette.

Gregory Crofton can be reached at (530) 542-8045 or by e-mail at