Washoe fire too much for private water company
Nevada Appeal News Service
TAHOE CITY, Calif. – The Washoe fire destroyed five Tahoe Park homes Saturday, including three within the bounds of a private water company that has been under scrutiny for inadequate water supply.
Officials wouldn’t comment Monday on the chances that the Washoe Way homes could have been saved if the neighborhood had more fire hydrants and better water pressure.
Officials agreed Monday that readily available fire-suppression resources can be the difference between saving property and losing it.
“The reality is, the demand of the incident exceeded the capacity of the private water system, which is not an uncommon thing in older subdivisions,” said North Tahoe Fire Chief Duane Whitelaw. “We were dealing with issues relating to the amount of water available and the pressure. Those two things have to work in concert for effective hose strength.”
A typical fire department response in several North Shore neighborhoods includes making arrangements for additional water supply with aircraft and fire engines. The Washoe fire response included two helicopters, a spotter plane and four water tenders, which can carry 2,000 to 3,000 gallons of water – nearly three times that of a regular fire engine.
“The only way to keep that pumping operation going was to take that water with us … Those things take time. Literally within minutes conditions can change,” Whitelaw said. “When the water runs out, you’re left with only shovels.”
Rick Dewante, who operates the Tahoe Park Water Co., said he has made strides to find a site for a larger water tank, but has come up empty-handed.
“Tahoe Park never had storage to speak of, just a small tank that’s really used for operations. For years I’ve tried to get a parcel to put a tank on, but I haven’t had any luck,” he said.
The Tahoe Park tank holds 40,000 gallons of water, but 400,000 gallons would be necessary for adequate fire suppression, he said.
“Our pumps were on full blast – 500 gallons per minute. When we lost power, we had the lake pumps on for about an hour until the power got back. Everything worked as well as it could,” Dewante said.
One possible cause
Investigators were sifting through still smoldering rubble on Monday seeking a cause.
One possible source, according to neighbors, was a barbecue propane tank that allegedly exploded while the owners of the home where it was located were away.
Erik Hurst, who lost his home two doors from where the fire started, said the regulator blew off the propane tank about 1:40 p.m. Saturday and shot flames that quickly spread into the house.
“No one was home at that house,” Hurst said. “How did the barbecue catch fire? I don’t know how a barbecue lights off by itself.”
Hurst, 40, sat on the back of a pickup Sunday morning and watched small plumes of smoke rise from the charred remains of his house. He said the other homes that burned had permanent residents.
“I lost pretty much everything I had,” said Hurst, a 17-year resident of Tahoe Park. “I spent the next two hours doing everything I could to save my house, but once it got going, I just had to get out.”
The 14-acre fire in the Sunnyside community closed California 89 and was fully contained Saturday night, said Todd Chatonot, a U.S. Forest Service spokesman. Many people were allowed to return to their homes Sunday, except those in the Tahoe Tavern Heights area.
Forest Service spokeswoman Cheva Heck said there has been no official determination about cause and had heard Hurst’s version unofficially.
• The Associated Press contributed to this report.