Crews scramble to douse spot fires
June 27, 2007
MEYERS ” Efforts to tame a raging wildfire that has destroyed some 200 homes near Lake Tahoe suffered a setback Tuesday when flames jumped a fireline, briefly trapping two firefighters and forcing a new round of evacuations, authorities said.
A group of firefighters were working to protect homes in South Lake Tahoe when winds up to 30 mph blew over embers from a fire set to contain the main blaze and started new spot fires, said Rich Hawkins, a U.S. Forest Service fire commander.
The blaze descended so quickly that two of them were forced to deploy the emergency shelters firefighters carry to protect themselves as a last resort.
Without the shelters, the men would have died, Hawkins said. The men, missing for nearly an hour, managed to walk away uninjured.
As a fresh plume of black smoke billowed over Lake Tahoe, the new arm of the wildfire prompted the mandatory evacuation of the Tallac Village-Gardner Mountain area, which includes 300 homes.
“It’s a fairly populated area,” said Tim Evans, a Forest Service spokesman. “That certainly is not good news for our firefighting efforts here.”
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Tuesday’s flare-up happened in an area where firefighters had set a fire the night before as part of their efforts to keep the main blaze from reaching more houses and Lake Tahoe itself. Firefighters so far had been able to put out the fires that jumped the line, officials said.
About 2,000 people evacuated from affected areas Tuesday, according to South Lake Tahoe Police Lt. Martin Hale.
Officials had announced a voluntary evacuation order for the Tahoe Keys, a waterfront subdivision on the lake, but later said the announcement was based on erroneous information and there was no such order.
Earlier in the day, authorities said the danger to homes had diminished overnight as dying winds gave firefighters a badly needed leg up on the inferno. But it was still burning throughout the day along rugged, uninhabited slopes, and officials cautioned that strong winds, forecast to reach 40 mph this week, could fan the flames.
“It’s windy up here. It’s very dry here,” Evans said. “When you have wind and dry fuel you get columns like what we see now.”
A hoped-for July 1 containment was pushed back to July 3, Hawkins said.
“Why should I be up here telling you that it’s almost over, because it’s not,” he told firefighters at a planning session late Tuesday.
The flare-up was about three miles from where the fire started Sunday. By Tuesday afternoon, the blaze had consumed more than 3,000 acres and was about 44 percent contained, fire officials said. Only two minor injuries have been reported.
Many homeowners got their first look Tuesday at the destruction wrought by the still-raging wildfire, with some discovering scenes of total devastation and others counting their blessings over smoke-filled homes blanketed with ash.
In the most heavily damaged neighborhoods, firefighters were still mopping up smoldering debris around houses where pockets of live flame lingered. Smoke hung thick over charred piles of rubble that were once homes to nurses, firefighters, policemen and teachers.
“I didn’t save hardly anything in the house,” said retired firefighter John Hartzell, whose home of 20 years was incinerated by the wildfire. Along with his wife, adult son and a daughter, he sorted through the charred rubble in search of any mementos that might have survived.
“I got out with the clothes on my back, my fire coat and my helmet,” he said.
Elsewhere, an opulent contemporary log home stood nearly untouched, even though all the sod in the yard had burned.
“It picks and chooses,” said Lynn Cisl, whose home along the edge of the most damaged area also survived. “It’s sort of like a disease. It’s devastating.”
Concerned about looting, dozens of sheriff’s deputies and California Highway Patrol officers roamed the burned neighborhoods of Meyers, a few miles south of the lake, ensuring that only those who lived in the area were allowed in.
– Associated Press Writers Aaron C. Davis and Brendan Riley in Meyers and Marcus Wohlsen in San Francisco contributed to this report.
Structures destroyed: 178 homes and 47 other structures
Acres burned as of press time: 3,100, nearly 4 square miles
Evacuation centers: 1,000 people evacuated; South Tahoe Recreation Center, Carson High School, Incline High School
Start area: Seneca Drive on U.S. Forest Service land
ETA of containment: 44 percent contained, full containment expected Tuesday
Firefighters: 1,889 from across the region, 54 crews
Fire engines: 145
Injuries: 1 minor injury to a firefighter’s knee; 2 firefighters who did have to deploy their fire shelters. They are unhurt.
Source: U.S. Forest Service