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Rebuilding Lake Tahoe

Jeff Munson
Nevada Appeal News Service
Emma Garrard / Sierra Sun
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Signs of hope sprout from the ruins on a windy Sunday afternoon on Angora ridge.

Orderly bunches of native grasses grow to ankles’ length, mixed in with mule ear and lupine that’s plopped up along empty lots dotted with tree stumps. Joggers, hikers and families stroll along their neighborhoods where homes once stood.

The forest fire that began on June 24, 2007, and officially contained July 2, 2007, changed the South Lake Tahoe community forever. Two-hundred and fifty-four homes lost and 3,072 acres burned resulted in $160 million in damages.

The most destructive and costliest fire to ever hit the Lake Tahoe basin began as an illegal campfire and ended with the help of 2,174 firefighters from across the West. Residents say the Angora fire brought about the best in its citizens, even among those who didn’t lose their homes.

“I think we were all victims of this fire,” said Linda Kurek, a Snow Mountain Drive resident, standing in front of the sole home on her block that miraculously didn’t burn. “And we were all survivors of this fire. We’ve all learned about ourselves more because of this fire.”

Kurek, a middle school music teacher, and her husband Steve spent Sunday planting and gardening around their home, which is surrounded by the few shells of homes that are being rebuilt. They talk about the neighborhood meetings they’ve gone to over the past few months. And they talk about the guilt they still feel.

“In the first few weeks, I would go to the community meetings, but then I stopped going because I felt guilty about it,” Steve Kurek said. “I asked one of the grief counselors about this and what I could do. She said ‘just be there to help those around you.'”

The neighborliness shines through the ashes of destruction.

Sipping a can of beer, Tom Nimitz helped friends Tara Brennan and Tony Columbo work on their home at 1424 Mt. Olympia Circle, just as they helped him with his home at 1480 Mt. Olympia Circle.

“You know through it all, being a single dad with two kids, you really see something here going on,” Nimitz said. “We’ve all struggled with this together, and we’re rebuilding together.”

As of today, 157 construction permits are in the pipeline. About 80 homes are already under construction and 10 of those homes may be ready to move in within a week, said Bob Green, El Dorado County Building Department branch manager.

“It’s about what we have expected,” he said. “In know there are 97 people who haven’t decided what their going to do yet. Some are waiting this out. Some have told us they have no intention to build in the immediate future and have banked their units with the Tahoe Regional Planning Agency.”

Considering 157 homes are in some phase of construction or pre-construction in as highly regulated area, the word “miraculous” comes to the mind of El Dorado County Supervisor Norma Santiago.

From day one of the fire, El Dorado County forged partnerships with state agencies and helped homeowners start recovering. This partnership helped smooth Angora-area debris removal. In 43 days, hundreds of trucks hauled millions of pounds of debris from the site.

The quick government response hastened the changes since the fire. While animosity and hard feelings remain, government, for the most part, did what it is supposed to do in an emergency, Santiago said.

“There was an understanding from the beginning that government has to stay out of the way of the people wanting to rebuild,” she said. “In one of the most regulated places in the state, this was unprecedented.”

But others, such as Sue Abrams, whose home was damaged in the fire, said tests for particulate matter have not been thorough enough. A handful of people said they suffer from respiratory problems they think may be linked to toxins from ash in the soils.

The lessons of the Angora fire continue.

Last month, California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger and Nevada Gov. Jim Gibbons signed emergency declarations for the five counties surrounding Lake Tahoe following a nine-month review of the fire.

The California-Nevada Tahoe Basin Fire Commission made more than 70 recommendations. The creation and maintenance of defensible space around private property is among the commission’s top priorities to prevent another catastrophic basin wildfire.

“Saving Lake Tahoe is going to be a continuing work in progress,” said U.S. Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., at last month’s commission proclamation signing. “One thing is clear: It’s not going to be done in 10 years. It will be ongoing.”