Angora fire: An event we’ll never forget
June 28, 2007
Many of us will never forget the moment we heard about the Angora fire. In that sense it’s like the terrorist attacks of 9-11-01, or the Space Shuttle disaster, or the significant personal events in our lives.
For me it was the strange color of the light in Carson City on that Sunday afternoon that caused me to look out a window. I made a call to the newsroom and wasn’t surprised to learn that our staff was already gathering the news and putting alerts on our Web site. The word at that moment was that already more than 50 homes had been destroyed. I repeated that news into the phone to make sure I’d heard it correctly and began to contemplate what that would mean for the days ahead. The certainties were that, even if the fire grew no larger, we suddenly had an historical news event that would occupy most of the waking moments of our staff and that of the Tahoe Daily Tribune, one of our sister papers and the closest to the front line.
But, of course, the fire grew much worse.
The worse-case scenario was clear to fire managers – that high winds would sweep the flames through the city and destroy everything in its path, stopping only at the lakeshore. Good fortune, smart planning and dedicated fire crews have kept that from happening, but it destroyed more than 200 homes.
I wasn’t here for the Waterfall fire that burned down so many homes in Carson City, but most of the Appeal staff was. I’ve listened to the stories they tell of those tense days as they rushed to get the latest news online and in the paper even as they watched the flames out the window. Because of that experience, there was no hesitation over what to do when the Angora fire broke out. One of those lessons was that people from all over the country with ties to the area would be relying on us to put up-to-the-minute news on our Web site. That’s what they did then and that’s what they’ve done all this week. It’s brought a sense of confidence and pride to work with them.
But this story really belongs to the staff of the Tahoe Daily Tribune. They are not only covering this story, they are a part of it. Two of their employees lost their homes in the fire and others worried throughout the week that their homes would fall too. One of their most urgent tasks in the midst of all the chaos was to prepare a plan to evacuate if the flames suddenly came their way. For a time, that seemed a very real possibility.
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On Wednesday, a journalist friend from Ohio was visiting and I decided to take him up to the Tribune office, the hub of all of our company’s reporting on the fire. As we drove through South Lake Tahoe, there was little to indicate the magnitude of what had happened. The smoke was light and people strolled casually on the sidewalks, stopping to look into store windows. If it weren’t for the “thank you firefighters” messages on the casino sign boards and the firetrucks mixed in with the regular traffic, it would have been just like any other day.
It was different when we reached the newspaper office. What we noticed immediately were the piles of clothes, food, water and other donated items for those who had lost their homes. The paper was serving as a drop-off site for those donations, and car after car pulled in to drop off more. There was an army of volunteers not only from the Tribune, but other papers in our company, including the Appeal, sorting and stacking the donations into neat piles. Trucks carrying more donations were on the way from places like Reno and even Los Angeles.
Inside though, the obvious metaphor was a beehive, and it was full of workers in bright yellow Nomex clothing. Some were fresh off the firelines writing stories and downloading photos. Editors were working the phones, shouting instructions, planning the next day’s paper. Fatigue showed on their faces and the faint odor of smoke hung in the air. There was urgency in even casual conversations as the hours and minutes to deadline fell away. To a journalist, it seemed the best possible place in the world to be, and we lingered as long as we could before returning to Carson City.
My friend’s impression of Lake Tahoe is much like mine was more than a year ago … that it really is one of the most beautiful places in the world. But I think he was also left with another impression after he walked among all those donations and listened to the people getting them ready for the evacuees – the people who live here are pretty special, too.
• Barry Ginter is editor of the Appeal. You can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org or 881-1221.