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Fighters suffer setback in containing Tahoe fire

A new round of evacuations was under way near Lake Tahoe as firefighters suffered a setback in their efforts to bring a raging wildfire under control when the blaze jumped a fire line near a densely populated area, authorities said.
Firefighters Battle Blaze Near Lake Tahoe
Firefighters continued to battle the 2,500-acre Angora wildfire near Lake Tahoe, Calif., on Tuesday.Justin Sullivan / Getty Images
/ Source: The Associated Press

Firefighters trying to tame a raging wildfire near Lake Tahoe Tuesday suffered a setback when the blaze jumped a fire line near a densely populated area, forcing a new round of evacuations, authorities said.

Firefighters were working to protect the Tallac Village development outside South Lake Tahoe when the blaze jumped their fire line, prompting the evacuation of the entire subdivision. It was unclear how many homes were subject to the order.

“It’s a fairly populated area,” said U.S. Forest Service spokesman Tim Evans. “That certainly is not good news for our firefighting efforts here.”

The danger to homes diminished overnight as firefighters got a badly needed advantage on the inferno. But it was still burning throughout the day along rugged, uninhabited slopes and authorities had cautioned that strong winds forecast to arrive Wednesday could fan the flames.

The flare-up is about three miles from where the fire started Sunday near the south end of Lake Tahoe. By Tuesday afternoon, the blaze had consumed more than 2,700 acres and was about 40 percent contained, fire officials said. One minor injury has been reported.

Heavy damage
Meanwhile Tuesday, other families whose homes were in the path of the wildfire returned to their property, finding some houses reduced to charred ruins and others largely unscathed, except for the odor of smoke and a blanket of ash.

In the most heavily damaged neighborhoods, firefighters doused pockets of lingering flames. Smoke hung thick over blackened piles of rubble that were once homes to nurses, police officers and teachers.

“I didn’t save hardly anything in the house,” said retired firefighter John Hartzell, who lost his home of 20 years. Along with his wife, adult son and a daughter, he sorted through the rubble in search of any mementos.

“I got out with the clothes on my back, my fire coat and my helmet,” he said.

Elsewhere, a beautiful home stood nearly untouched, even though all the sod in its 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.”

Human activity likely cause
Investigators determined that the fire began near Seneca Pond, an area popular with runners and teenagers in this resort area along the California-Nevada state line. They also said they were close to identifying its cause. An announcement on that was expected later Tuesday.

Authorities have said they believe the fire was caused by some kind of human activity, but U.S Forest Service officials said there was no indication it was intentionally set.

The forest here was so dry that a discarded cigarette butt or match could easily have ignited the fire, Forest Service spokeswoman Beth Brady said. The area was also dotted with the remnants of illegal campfires, she said.

Experts have said California and the rest of the West are entering what could be a long and dangerous fire season after one of the region’s driest winters on record. They warn that years of logging, development and forest mismanagement have left the Tahoe area particularly vulnerable to catastrophic wildfires.

“Lake Tahoe Basin is probably an extreme example, but very similar conditions exist throughout the Sierra Nevada,” Forest Service spokesman Matt Mathes said. “It can happen literally anywhere at any moment.”

'It's all gone'
In Meyers, the charred landscape included manicured driveways leading to metal garage doors that were still standing amid the ruins of destroyed homes.

Fire Captain Ron Sandling (L) and Firefighter Ryan Mahon mop-up burning embers after a fast-moving wildfire swept through Meyers, CA on June 25, 2007. The forest fire raged out of control for a second day on Monday in the popular California resort of Lake Tahoe, destroying at least 220 homes and forcing up to 1,000 people to evacuate, officials said. REUTERS/Max Whittaker (UNITED STATES)Max Whittaker / X02214

Hartzell’s sister-in-law, Ruth Orozco, a nurse, also lost her home but was able to escape with her two dogs and one cat.

“I can’t believe it’s all gone,” she said, breaking into tears.

Concerned about looting, dozens of sheriff’s deputies and California Highway Patrol officers roamed the burned neighborhoods, ensuring that only those who lived in the area were allowed in. Cars lined up to pass through an elaborate checkpoint where each vehicle’s window was marked with white shoe polish to designate the street number of the home it was allowed to visit.

“It was eerie and awkward. You could see the expressions on everyone’s face,” said Lindsey Douglass, 22, after she made her way through the line of more than 30 waiting cars.

Concerns about downed power lines and other hazards forced some homeowners to delay their return until later this week.