As smoke clears, Tahoe residents return to burned-out homes |

As smoke clears, Tahoe residents return to burned-out homes

Associated Press Writer

Jeff Chiu/Associated Press Keith Cooney searches for a firebox Friday as he digs through the remains of his home near South Lake Tahoe that was burned down on Sunday in the Angora wildfire.

SOUTH LAKE TAHOE, Calif. – People who lost their homes and belongings in the first devastating wildfire of the season were allowed to briefly return to their burned-out neighborhoods Friday as fire officials announced they had turned the corner in taming the blaze.

With evacuation orders lifted in many parts of town, residents of the area where 254 houses were destroyed soon after the fire broke out were given an hour to sift through the wreckage under the eyes of a police escort.

Keith Cooney, who works for a local title company, saw his rented home of three years engulfed in flames on a local news broadcast Sunday and came back to find only a bent metal garage door standing. He spotted a concrete swan given to him by a former neighbor in New Orleans, but not the fireproof box with his important papers.

“I gotta dig through this. This is going to be unbelievable,” Cooney said as the wind whispered through the blackened, charred leaves of several young aspen trees in the remains of his front yard.

The smoke-free skies that greeted Lake Tahoe on Friday morning confirmed the word from fire officials that the threat to thousands more homes and the region’s tourist trade was subsiding after five days.

After a second straight day of mild winds allowed firefighters to surround the blaze, U.S. Forest Service commanders said they planned to reduce their force by one-fourth. The blaze was 80 percent contained as of Friday evening, while the amount of land burned held steady at 3,100 acres, or 4.7 square miles, according to Forest Service incident commander Rich Hawkins.

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“Firefighters came in this morning and felt even more comfortable about the approaching containment of this fire,” Hawkins said. “I’m feeling pretty good about it.”

Officials cautioned that it still was too early to declare victory, with forecasters saying winds could pick up again.

“Don’t be complacent. There are still hazards out there,” Kit Bailey, a Forest Service chief, told hundreds of firefighters Friday morning. “It’s going to be a long, brutal summer.”

In the Lake Tahoe Basin, the decision to let homeowners back into the burned-out streets about seven miles from the lake where all the destroyed homes are was welcome news to residents who had waited all week to see the devastation for themselves.

A few people were so determined to sift through the ashes that they defied the evacuation orders and returned repeatedly on bicycles earlier Thursday. They were arrested for trespassing, said El Dorado Sheriff’s Deputy Phil Chovanec.

Evelyn Taylor and her husband, Carl, of Aptos, returned to the remains of their vacation home Friday accompanied by an insurance adjuster. The couple owned the house for 20 years. Nothing was left but a cinderblock wall.

“When my husband and I drove down the street, we both just lost it. But we will rebuild,” Evelyn Taylor said. “We’re thankful it wasn’t our primary home.”

Nearby, roommates Stephanie Bant, 25, and Heather Gann, 23, stood by a half-burned home that showed the fire’s capricious nature. Milk and beer were still in the refrigerator, which stood in a pitch-black kitchen. The back door and windows were gone, and led to the remains of a deck.

Bant’s bed lay in a melted and burned mass of bedding and blackened coils, while Gann’s piano stood untouched in the other bedroom. The two renters didn’t seem too fazed, and were happy their snowboards had survived. Access to the mountains and lake is why they live in Lake Tahoe, they said.

“We’re better off than a lot of people,” Bant said.

• Associated Press Writers Laura Kurtzman, Scott Lindlaw and Robert Jablon contributed to this report.