Firefighters racing the weather for control of a turbulent wildfire near this popular resort got a bit of a break Wednesday as high winds forecast to arrive by early afternoon held off, giving crews time to shore up their defenses.
Forecasters were still expecting the wind to pick up later in the day, but the extra few hours of calm allowed firefighters to fortify their lines, U.S. Forest Service spokesman Tom Efird said.
They were trying to keep the wildfire from consuming more buildings near the small town of Meyers where it started, and from reaching several densely populated subdivisions near where one flank of the blaze jumped a containment line. The fire has destroyed 200 homes and other buildings since it emerged over the weekend.
“The worst-case scenario is the fire would break out in multiple locations,” said Rich Hawkins, a U.S. Forest Service fire commander. “The biggest problem is just that there are so many homes in a combustible environment.”
Nearly total destruction
The governors of the two states Lake Tahoe straddles, California’s Arnold Schwarzenegger and Nevada’s Jim Gibbons, toured neighborhoods charred by the fire.
Examining the remains of a house in the Tahoe Mountain neighborhood, just outside South Lake Tahoe, the ex-bodybuilder Schwarzenegger hoisted a dumbbell from the debris, marveling that it was one of the few objects to survive. “Amazing,” he told an aide.
Little else survived the inferno. Metal mattress coils, a bicycle, tools, half-melted televisions, concrete foundations and chimneys were about all that was left of the burned houses. Some neighboring buildings stood virtually untouched.
“It could have been much worse, if we hadn’t had such well-trained firefighters,” said Schwarzenegger, mentioning his decision in May to free up more money for firefighters and equipment after the dry winter.
Governor orders fees waived for victims
He also signed an executive order suspending replacement fees for those who lost personal records such as drivers licenses or vehicle registration documents to the fire. He also asked state tax authorities to grant extensions to those affected, and to consider waiving penalties.
California’s insurance commissioner, citing figures from the El Dorado County sheriff’s department, pegged the total property damage at $150 million.
Hundreds of homes within view of the lake remained under mandatory evacuation orders, while residents of already damaged areas were still being asked to stay away.
Winds the wild card
Many returned anyway — at least long enough to stuff more belongings into cars and trucks before leaving again. Others came back and camped out, readying garden hoses and even buckets to douse embers expected to land nearby if winds kicked up as expected. In all, about 2,000 people were evacuated, according to South Lake Tahoe Police Lt. Martin Hale.
The blaze has charred more than 3,000 acres — about 4.7 square miles — and was 55 percent contained on Wednesday, fire officials said. With stiffer gusts in the forecast, officials acknowledged that more homes, including some in the most affluent waterfront neighborhoods, could be threatened. Several officials said the wind could also present a danger to firefighters themselves.
“It really is hard to predict what these winds are going to do,” said Kelly Martin, a fire behavior analyst who addressed hundreds of firefighters from across the state at a pre-dawn briefing Wednesday.
Officials thought they had a handle on the original edge of the blaze on Tuesday, but a surprisingly big gust of wind in the afternoon was all it took to push firefighters off the line they had held for more than a day outside a 300-home subdivision.
It was in an area where firefighters had set a fire the night before in an effort to keep the main blaze from reaching more houses and Lake Tahoe itself. The gust blew embers from the burn area over the fireline and started new spot fires, Hawkins said.
Witnesses to inferno quizzed
The blaze descended so quickly that two firefighters were forced to deploy the emergency shelters they carry to protect themselves as a last resort. They were unhurt but would have died without the shelters, Hawkins said.
Authorities have said they believe the fire was caused by human activity, but there was no indication it was set intentionally.
Forest Service spokeswoman Beth Brady, a member of the four-person group leading the investigation, said they were confident they had isolated the spot where the first spark landed. But after the fire flared again Tuesday afternoon, they delayed an expected announcement about the cause and decided to double-check their findings against eyewitness accounts.